Labor Should Organize Globally

“If a worker in China or India can do the same work as one in the United States, then the laws of economics dictate that they will end up earning similar wages….  That’s good news for overall economic efficiency, for consumers, and for workers in developing countries – but not for workers in developed countries who now face low-cost competition.”

“New World Order:  Labor, Capital, and Ideas in the Power Law Economy”; Erik      Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee, and Michael Spence; Foreign Affairs, July-August, 2014


Academics have described the world.  The point, however, is to change it.

The world the capitalists have created is irreversibly global.  As they scan the world for the cheapest qualified labor, a global workforce scours the planet for opportunity.  From the perspective of a global capitalist, U.S. workers differ from workers in other parts of the world mainly in their cost.  For manufacturing industries, this means sending the work where labor is cheapest.  For hotel and some other service workers, by contrast, wage competition is local. Hotels catering to the global wealthy can afford to pay above-average wages.  But competition for better-paid jobs will grow fiercer as other wages fall.  No industry or union can indefinitely escape the pressure of low global wages.  Over time, national differences will decline, and wages will tend to equalize in services as well as manufacturing.

Without global solidarity, they will not equalize up.

In my original union, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union / ILGWU, for almost a century, organizers “followed the bundle,” as employers ran from Manhattan to Brooklyn to Pennsylvania and New England, and eventually to Los Angeles and Atlanta.  And early generations of internationally-minded, immigrant labor leaders like Sam Gompers, John L. Lewis, Sidney Hillman, David Dubinsky and Jay Lovestone understood Europe as part of their territory.  They were comfortable meeting with unionists – and national Presidents — there.  But for their U.S.-born successors, foreign was foreign.  Organizing stopped at the water’s edge.

U.S. union “demands,” of course, are much less welcomed by most overseas governments than employer dollars.  But mostly, we have simply not imagined a better world, or considered that within the range of business unionism.  With the heroic exception of the 1999 “Battle in Seattle,” we have not demanded that U.S. labor or human rights accompany U.S. job exports.

Today, we are overpowered, when not ignored, by worldly corporate honchos.  And we are in steady decline as nominally American corporations expand even in formerly communist nations like China or Vietnam.

I believe that Unions, like all organizations in our time, must globalize or die.  If global parity is destiny, as the authors quoted above assert, only global solidarity can equalize wages up.

Is global working class cooperation possible?

Most U.S. trade unionists dismiss this out of hand.  But I have seen global solidarity succeed among workers and governments — and it works.

Half a century ago, I was a Peace Corps community organizer in a Panama City squatter community.  My most savvy and committed fellow-organizer was communist (“Partido del Pueblo”) bus driver and union leader Carlos Zorita – “Camacho” to all who knew him.  He read books.  And he had balls.  I was his “Ugly American” friend.  On the massive front bumper of his bus were the words “Realidad Objetiva.”  He understood the sociology of his country and the world.  He was sympathetic to the left-oriented military dictator, Omar Torrijos, who took power eleven days after the election — for the third time in forty years — of pro-fascist coffee plantation owner Arnulfo Arias.  When now-President Torrijos came to our neighborhood to speak with the people, Camacho was the only resident with the nerve to stand next to the General and propose what our “Betterment Committee” had formulated:  residents wanted sewage lines, paved roads and, eventually, title to the land.  Torrijos’ wealthy successor, Ricardo de la Espriella (then in Torrijos’ cabinet) walked our muddy streets with our betterment committee.  Torrijos listened.    Over the next few years, all this was done.  U.S. A.I.D. provided a share of the funding.

It was a win-win for global cooperation, U.S. — and labor — values.

Also accomplished, over the next few years, on a larger playing field:  a shift in control over the Panama Canal from the U.S. to Panama, as negotiated by Torrijos and U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Despite predictions of catastrophe under Latino management, U.S. and global shipping are unharmed. The Canal has been successfully widened.  U.S.-Panama relations are good.

No harm, no foul – no loser.  The doubters were wrong.  All humans are created equal.

When I visited the old neighborhood two years ago, I did not hear complaints of Yankee imperialism.  With paved streets and modern water infrastructure, homeowners had improved the cinder-block houses they had once built and now legally owned.  They had become the struggling middle class, friendly to the U.S.A..

Would they, or other Panamanian workers, objecPuente de las Americast to joining a U.S.- based union, and building strength, with the understanding that a truly International union was the goal?  In my view, no.­­­  U.S. Labor’s isolation and decline reflect no defeat by global capitalism or global working-class anti-imperialism.  We have surrendered to our own fear and ignorance, without a fight.  Afraid to grow, we have begun to die. What is wrong with “workers of the world, unite!”?

For a union with global ambition and imagination, Panama, the crossroads of the world, is an obvious organizing opportunity.

Hotels and casinos could be perfect early targets.  Every U.S. hotel chain has one or several hotels in Panama.  U.S. President Donald Trump owns two hotels, and several other buildings.  Casinos catering to global travelers prosper.  Panama City could be a base for a UNITE HERE VP, on a par with San Francisco or Las Vegas.  And after success in Panama, a truly “International” union could look to Costa Rica Argentina, and Vietnam.  Why would they not?

Victory for UNITE HERE in Panama could mark a turning point for U.S. labor.  We might salvage our long-term future by going global like every other organization.

But UNITE HERE, like other U.S. unions, has no Panama affiliate.  We have not challenged global hotel chains on a global basis.  We are, as the story goes, more sensitive than capitalists to the patriotic sentiments of people in other countries.  But what if the people would actually prefer a U.S. standard of living?  How would we even know?

I believe the barrier to global unions is maintained by our parochial union leaders, each with his or her established (and shrinking) turf.  Most seem unmotivated or baffled by the thought of challenging capital on its limitless turf.

Does this matter?  I would say that if U.S. and Panamanian representatives could work together to turn a squatter neighborhood into a middle-class community, or an imperialist Canal Zone into a highly efficient point of pride for that nation; and if nominally “U.S.” corporations can manage much of Panama’s economy; then U.S. labor must not fear organizing Hyatt, or Trump, or Hilton wherever they roam.

Why should we not look forward to a Mexican President of the UAW, or a Hong Kong Vice President of SEIU?  Are we really concerned about appearing “imperialist?”   Or do we simply know so little about the world that we are afraid to put our toes in the global water?

If we cannot follow, we will not survive.

Is asking U.S. labor to go global like asking a hippopotamus to fly?

Ask any capitalist.  You grow or die.  There is a lot of evidence that today’s U.S. labor movement, after inheriting the fruits of a century of struggle, is dying for lack of respect and innovation.  We must return to pursuing capital, as we did in our glory days, wherever it goes.



a review of “Between the World and Me”, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2015

and “The Beautiful Struggle,” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

 Spiegel and Grau, New York, 2008


“When I was your age,” Coates tells his son, Samori, “the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”

Their fear is well founded.  There is no safe place for a black man in Coates’ America.  He sees a nation of Dreamers “who think they are white,” continuously chasing “plunder.”  Their heritage includes the right to destroy black men’s bodies with impunity.  And plunder now includes dreams that may destroy the Earth itself.

In this world, the descendants of slaves often take their fear and anger out on each other.

For Coates, fear begins at home.  His father, a military veteran and disillusioned former Black Panther captain, disciplines his children with his fists. Dad hopes his blows will prevent them from confronting police.  “Maybe this saved me.  Maybe it didn’t,” Ta-Nehisi demurs. “We were afraid of those who loved us most.”

In the West Baltimore ghetto of Coates’ childhood, “the crews, the young men who’d transmuted their fear into rage, were the greatest danger. [They] walked the blocks of their neighborhood, loud and rude, because it was only through their loud rudeness that they might feel any sense of security and power.  They would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power.”

But “their knowledge peaked at seventeen.” And, as all understood, “young black men who dropped out of school were headed for jail.”  Their bodies were forfeit, after a few years of adolescent bravado.

Even in school, the street code demands violent response to disrespect.  Coates is twice suspended, once for threatening a teacher, once for a confrontation with another student. When Coates’ Dad hears of the threat to the teacher, he comes to school and punches his son in front of the class. “He swung like he was afraid,” Coates writes, like the world was closing in and cornering him, like he was trying to save my life.”

Growing up, Coates “loved Malcolm X”, not for his anger, but because “Malcolm never lied.”

Coates also does not lie. Threats come from all directions, from blacks as well as whites, from home and school as well as from police and strangers.

Only at Howard University, a predominantly black school in Washington, D.C, known as “the Mecca” to Coates, does the background fear begin to fade away.  Here, he finds himself as a man and a writer.  His closest male friend is Prince Jones, son of a former maid who has worked her way up to a position as Professor.  Prince is a bone-deep Christian.  Then, driving one day through predominantly black Prince George’s County, Virginia, a few miles from the District of Columbia, Prince has a never-clarified encounter with a black policeman.  He is shot and killed.  No one is charged. No one is punished.

No one is safe.

Some years later, Coates finds a living as a writer in York City.  He dreams again of protecting his family and son from the dangers he has experienced.  Then, in a confrontation on a movie theater escalator, a white woman shoves his five-year-old son out of her way. When Coates raises his voice at the woman, white theater-goers intervene.  “I could have you arrested,” one warns.

In the time of Trayvon Martin, Coates and his son both understand their bodies are always at risk.  As the book ends, he is driving through the rain, past the old “ghettos.”  The “old fear” returns.

Coates’ beautifully written, sparely worded second book evokes the despair at the end of Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms.”  Coates has been criticized by some for not offering hope or solutions to African Americans’ problems.  This reflects his experience, that neither violent resistance nor peaceful coexistence can put an end to Dreamers’ plunder.

But a farewell to arms, and fists, would be a start.


       (for a PowerPoint version of this document, click here: ORGANIZED LABOR AND DEMOCRACY)

October 21, 2015       

When people hear that I spent most of my working life in the labor movement, they often say to me, “unions are really in trouble today.”

My default answer: “the country is in trouble; democracy is in trouble.”

That answer is what I want to explain.

My political belief, generally, is that the Founding Fathers were right to recognize the dangers of concentrating too much power in one person, or one institution. I believe in checks and balances. Applying that radical moderate belief to our economic system places me pretty far to the left in this country today.


I share the understanding of Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, who faced the then-new phenomenon of giant corporations (“trusts” in Teddy’s day). These continental organizations wielded economic power great enough, if left unchecked, to overwhelm a weak and passive national government. The Roosevelts, from their lofty perspective, saw that American society needed the countervailing power of free labor unions as well as a strong national government to balance corporate power.


So, they let unions happen, and on a large scale. Through trust-busting, facilitated by media muckrakers, increased government management of the economy, and facing unprecedented waves of strikes and organizing, they allowed and occasionally encouraged the growth of unions, while also pushing through a series of other progressive reforms.


The country prospered.


A lot of us in this room lived through the post-World War II era of strong government, strong business and strong labor. We benefited from rapid growth during a period of balanced power within our country; and of relatively unchecked U.S. power around the world.


But today, we are in a new era, dominated by global corporations, strong and patriotically indifferent enough to play whole countries – even the USA – against each other, in a struggle for the wealth and jobs these private interests control. In our rapidly changing times, even nationally based unions, where they still exist in this country, are often too weak – just as our democratic government appears too weak – to provide an effective balance.


Today, both our unions and our country are under siege by the new Great (Private) Powers. Those of us who prefer a balance of economic, civil society and democratic political power should be allies, not enemies.




As many writers have pointed out, we’re in a second Gilded Age. Still waiting for the next Teddy – or for rational grass-roots movements strong enough to challenge the power of concentrated wealth. But the popular voice seems weak or misled, and as the dream of democratic power leading from below recedes, we hear talk of oligarchy as the “natural” state of affairs in this world.



As someone who has spent the majority of my life in the labor movement, let me say – and then try to clarify — something you may not believe, based on much of what you hear from the media or political officials, or even disillusioned union members:


..American labor unions are democracies, modeled after our constitutional democracy – complete with unpopular dues, in place of taxes. I believe you should defend them as an irreplaceable base for political democracy and for political education in a corporate era.


And you might want to consider why the folks who are most anxious to wreck unions are often the same folks who describe our democratic government as the people’s enemy – something to be weakened, shut down or, in some un-named way, replaced.


As for the parallels between American government and most American unions, a legal foundation in written constitutions is one commonality. (Here is a sample union constitution, if you want to look at it after this talk.)


Popular election of union officials is another. Many people mistakenly believe that leadership elections define union democracy, or the lack of it, just as they define our political institutions. But that is a partial misunderstanding that I want to clarify.


Members of UNITE local 311, (Polartec) voting on their contract, 1990s.



Unions differ from our government in that election of union officials is NOT the heart of democracy for union members, though it obviously has some importance. Rather, the direct membership vote on their union contract is what naturally matters most to union members. It is the contract that sets the wages, benefits, working hours and days, and the rules by which members live all their working days, as well as their benefits when they can no longer work,


U.S. citizens, by contrast, don’t get to vote directly, as a rule, on the laws that govern us. We elect OTHER people to make laws for us. But Union members – I’ll say it again – do vote directly on contracts that govern much of their everyday working life.


Contracts also define union employees’ “right to work” in the honest sense of the word. That is, a union member, once they complete their trial period (which can vary from a few days to a few years) can only be fired for “just cause” – a fair reason – absenteeism, poor performance, theft, insubordination, and so on. The legal standard that applies in non-union workplaces, by contrast, is known as “employee at will.” That ancient term – “at will” — means that the employee is free to quit when he or she wishes – she is not indentured or enslaved – and the employer is free to hire or fire her for any reason (except, under our laws today, not because of her race, religion, sex and so on).


But our jobs are too important to be left entirely in someone else’s hands. They define our identity, our family’s standard of living, our future prospects – and how we spend our days. They should not be lightly erased, like a number on a spreadsheet. Even many undemocratic countries understand that. Just ask a Chinese employer who has been temporarily kidnapped by his employees until some understanding is reached.


When I was growing up, I often heard my father say, “property is nine tenths of the law.” Maybe you heard that expression as well.


Well, her or his job is the most real property most working people have. Unions take that seriously.


But beyond that, union members get to vote on working rules and standards, along with their fellow members. That is democracy at work. Literally.

Members of UNITE HERE Local 313, rallying

In support of contract demands, 2008.

(photo by Dana Simon)


But does union power work for the country?


Right now, I’ll just say, the American majority, the middle class, did better when unions were strong and growing than they do today. (coincidence?) does not prove causality. But it’s something to think about.


Now let me say something about how union NEGOTIATIONS – which are the real core of union democracy — work.


Some of you who have enjoyed professional or executive careers, may know what it is to negotiate as individuals for your terms of work. Union negotiations are similar – but most Americans, by themselves, don’t have the power to negotiate their terms of employment. Far from it. Union members negotiate, instead, as a – hopefully irreplaceable – group.


Let’s look at an example of how this works.


In late summer and early Fall, 2015, the New York Times and the Washington Post both reported extensively on contract negotiations for the new 4-year contract between the United Auto Workers Union and the Fiat-Chrysler Corporation. Their reports illustrate pretty well how this works.


Here is what happened


A union committee headed by the UAW’s International President, Dennis Williams, and including local union officers and worker delegates, first sat down with Fiat Chrysler management to work out a new contract in July, 2015. The union came in with a list of proposed improvements, from their members’ perspective. They had developed this list over years and months of discussion among local and national leaders, and members. The leaders believed these were ideas that had a chance of winning management approval.


Management also had a set of goals.


The political and economic environment for the negotiations included several salient realities:


. The U.S. auto industry and economy had largely recovered from the Great Recession. But auto industry wages and working conditions had not.


. The company CEO, Sergio Marchionne, was being paid $millions per year.


. State governments in the Midwest had been passing laws to make the payment of union dues optional. Union leadership did not want to be in the position of asking unhappy members for their dues.


The key union demand was to equalize wages between the relatively high rates paid to workers hired before the near bankruptcy of the company during the Great Recession; and the much lower wages paid to new hires after that date – some as low as half the senior worker rate. Both the newer and older workers wanted this equalized, because the difference caused division within the union, and that made the union weaker.




There were also proposed changes in health insurance, and on many other subjects. Union members wanted assurance their jobs would not be outsourced.


During the course of negotiations, the union and company agreed to reduce, but not eliminate, the wage differential between senior and post-recession hires. Progress was made on other issues as well. Union and management shook hands on an agreement they thought was ready to bring to union members for a vote.


But then, 40,000 members, in many Locals, voted – and I mean virtually all actually showed up and VOTED, because they understood how the agreement would affect them. The vote was by secret ballot on September 14 and 15. The “NO’s” had it, by 65%.


Management on both sides had misjudged. Potential for an expensive strike at a time when demand for cars was high was in everyone’s mind


Negotiators went back to the table. They agreed to virtually eliminate the senior-junior employee differential, over a few years. Issues with a new health insurance idea were relatively straightened out. There was some assurance that Ram truck production would not be shifted to Mexico.



Now I’d like to read some comments union members made to Times and Post reporters over the course of negotiations. To me, they are not wild-eyed, or wide of the mark. They suggest that members knew exactly what they were voting on, as well as what they wanted and thought they could get.


(from NY Times): One Fiat Chrysler worker said Thursday that he needed more information before endorsing the tentative agreement, “Our contract is up in four years, and the plan [to equalize wages] takes eight years,” said Brian Keller, a worker at a company distribution center in Michigan. He questioned whether Fiat Chrysler and the union “can change the commitment” after four years are up. “You’ve got to read between the lines,” he said.


“When you’re seeing the CEO making $72 million, how do you justify that, compared to what we make?” Keller added. “When we see a company making record profits, and we gave up so much in bankruptcy during the company’s darkest days, it’s only fair that they come back with something better.”

Here’s are two quotes from the Post:

As the midnight deadline approached [after the revised contract was voted on], UAW representatives inside the Warren plant told employees there was a deal. “There was a lot of relief,” said a skill-tradesman named Diego, who declined to give his last name. He voted no on the last contract because he’s concerned that it allowed FCA to move assembly to Mexico. While he feels secure as a skilled tradesman, “I worry about the rest of these guys.” 

…. “I heard it was a good deal,” a member in another plant was quoted as saying. “I voted no [the first time] because we need to know what’s happening with this truck” — the Ram assembled here. (Members had heard work on that truck might be shifted to Mexico.) “The money was good. That wasn’t my issue.”

Some members just cited better communications from the union, after the initial “no” vote from members: “Vernita Glover, [the New York Times reports,] an entry-level worker at the Sterling Heights assembly plant, who said she had voted against the initial contract, partly because she did not understand some of the plan’s provisions, also cited the improved communication.

“Digital-wise they kept us updated, and that eased everybody’s minds as far as questions and answers,” she said. “On websites, Facebook and other places, they really got involved and kept their members informed.”

On October 22, the second round of membership balloting was completed in all locations, and the revised agreement had been approved by 77% of the membership.

(Next stop for the union: General Motors, where an initial agreement was reached by the end of October.)

In the end, UAW/Fiat Chrysler had conducted a serious negotiation between informed and responsive parties – not too different than one some of you might have had, individually, with your employer, or employees – but it affected 36,000 wage-earners and 4,000 salaried employees, plus their management and stockholders, directly. And it set a pattern for negotiations with tens of thousands more at G.M. and Ford. It affected our country.

If you compare the rationality of the discussion with what you hear about elected political officials in Washington and elsewhere, today – the contrast, for better or worse, would seem to favor the labor-management process.

Both sides understood they needed each other, and why. And blue collar immigrants understood that the New York Yankees of the economy still put their pants on one leg at a time, just like them. They were only human. Workers understood that, if corporate management created jobs, employees’ work created wealth.

Will the Union President who first misjudged, but then dug his way out, be re-elected? Very possibly. But that is not the most important question in a polity where people can vote directly on their economic lives – their contracts.

These negotiations affected America, for the better.

I’ve been a union Education Director, talking to members about politics, economics and all kinds of things. But I believe the experience of sitting down with management across a table, and negotiating, based on an informed and intimate understanding of differing interests, instead of rumor, prejudice and so on, is the best political, sociological and economic education there is.

If you take this right away from the American working and middle class, you take away the most genuine democracy we know, one where many Americans are more involved, better informed, and less likely to make crazy, symbolic gestures than in our national political system. Their livelihood is involved. They have jobs and a stake in our economy. Workers listen and learn from each other, and can judge based on facts, instead of personality.

Do we have “social classes” in America?? Yes. We do. Union members almost never use that term, but they get it. They see it, firsthand. And they are OK with that, as long as there is some respect, and some justice.

Today, I would say, a lot of Americans who vote for anti-union politicians either never had a union – or DID belong to a union and then saw their job exported or automated. Now they vote their resentment, not their interest. Negative democracy. People do dumb or mean things when they are denied a voice, as equals, over what matters.

Good unions make good citizens.




U.S. multinationals pursue victory in Capital strike against taxes

Global, nominally U.S. corporations have been on a tax strike since the last “repatriation holiday” in 2005. Corporations like Apple computer and General Electric are refusing to bring an estimated $1.7 trillion in “overseas earnings” back to the U.S. as long as the United States demands a 35% tax payment on those earnings. Apple, for example, has more than $12 Billion parked offshore. Google has $17 billion and Microsoft, $29 billion. “To the companies,” Washington Post reporters Jia Lynn Yang and Suzy Khimm note, “no other tax issue matters more.”

Faced with the same situation seven years ago, President George W. Bush let capitalist allies off with a five percent tax payment, and nearly $400 billion was eventually brought back to the U.S. But, while the tax holiday was “sold” to the public with the promise of job-creating domestic investment, ninety-two percent of that money was instead returned to shareholders in the form of dividends and stock buybacks.. Times reporter David Kocieniewski describes two differing versions of how one of the big winners, pharmaceutical giant Merck Corp., used the tax giveaway. According to:

Merck spokesman, Steven Campanini…. the company used the [repatriated] money for “U.S.-based research and development spending, capital investments in U.S. plants, and salaries and wages for the U.S.”


According to regulatory filings, the company cut its work force and capital spending in this country in the three years that followed. …

Merck brought back $15.9 billion in October 2005. The next month, it unveiled a restructuring plan to cut 7,000 jobs. Over the next three years, about half those cuts were made in the United States, where the company’s employment fell to 28,800 jobs, from 31,500….

Much the same happened elsewhere, according to a review of taxpayer data by the National Bureau of Economic Research. “For every dollar that was brought back, there were zero cents used for additional capital expenditures, research and development, or hiring and employees’ wages,” said Kristin J. Forbes, a professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management who was a member of President Bush’s council of economic advisers and who led the study.

The pitch today is to eliminate U.S. taxes on foreign profits altogether, and switch to a “territorial” system – in which a company only pays taxes where it claims the money was made. But global companies have many ways of attributing earnings to tax havens like the Cayman Islands to avoid local taxation – or avoiding taxes altogether in “free trade zones” around the world. (U.S.-based Intel Corporation, for example, negotiated “foreign trade zone” status to avoid taxes in 2011 on its new facility in Chandler, Arizona.)

Unsurprisingly, wealthy global corporations find widespread political support for their strike, including from Co-Chairs Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles of the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. “At least,” says Bowles in justifying the giveaway, “(the money) will be here and not circulating in other countries.” The territorial system of taxation was also endorsed by President Obama’s Jobs Council, headed by General Electric CEO Jeffrey Immelt. Thankfully, this Council has not met since early 2012. A call for this colossal break was also part of GOP Presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s economic platform, and House Republicans have passed a budget that includes a transition to a territorial tax system.

The effects of caving in to this “bring it home free” demand would include long-term damage to future U.S. budgets. “The territorial tax system they envision would gut the entire U.S. Corporate tax code,” according to Edward D. Kleinbard, a Professor of Tax Policy at the University of Southern California. Kimberly Clausing, an Economics professor at Reed College calculates that as many as 800,000 jobs could be added to low-tax countries instead of the United States.

Among factors making a complete Obama Administration cave-in on this demand unlikely is opposition from domestic firms, which already pay higher taxes than the country’s biggest multinationals. But some negotiated compromise seems likely, though not necessarily as part of “Fiscal Cliff” negotiations. A 20-25, percent taxation agreement, followed by significant financial repatriation, could be a significant Democrat victory, and a boost to the domestic economy.

Another arguably positive resolution might be following the Japanese example. Japan switched to a territorial system in 2009. But they also tax a company’s foreign income if taxes paid in another country are less than 20 percent. While 20 percent is still a low number, a global 20 percent standard would represent a remarkable move toward tax discipline in a global world.

It seems likely, however, that U.S. corporations would respond to this idea by continuing their strike.…

Materials cited in this article:

In ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Debate Companies Quietly Push For Tax Break On Foreign Profits,” Jia Lynn Yang And Suzy Khimm, Washington Post, November 29, 2012

Companies Push for Tax Break on Foreign Cash,”David Kocieniewski, New York Times, June 20, 2011

Europe Struggles With U.S. Corporate Tax Evaders

Nov. 5, 2014

New European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with his principle sponsor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.  -

New European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker with his principle sponsor, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. –

Corporate America’s relentless campaign to evade or reduce taxes has scored an uncertain victory in Europe with the elevation of Jean-Claude Juncker to President of the European Commission (the highest Europe-wide office.[i])

As Prime Minister of tiny Luxembourg for most of the past eighteen years, Juncker made that country a low-tax haven, persuading more than 300 U.S. and other foreign companies to incorporate and declare earnings there for tax purposes. In recent years, some other European countries – notably Ireland and Netherlands — have also hidden special tax breaks for favored companies, and facilitated virtually total tax avoidance through scams to attribute earnings to various Caribbean islands.

But today, that form of capitalism is under increasing attack through much of Europe.   An aroused public wants governments to end corporate evasion of billions of Euros in taxes owed there, as national budgets face budget shortfalls and austerity. An investigation by the Europe-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists [ii] recently charged that global corporations PepsiCo, Ikea and FedEx had benefitted from preferential deals with the government of Luxembourg, in violation of European Community rules. FedEx, the Consortium explained, had “set up two affiliates to shift earnings from its Mexican, French and Brazilian operations to…Luxembourg largely as tax-free dividends. Luxembourg agreed to tax only 0.25 percent of FedEx’s non-dividend income flowing through this arrangement, leaving the remaining 99.75 percent tax-free.”

Shortly before Junker’s appointment[iii], however, European Competition Commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, from Spain, began an investigation of Luxembourg tax breaks given to a unit of Italian auto manufacturer, Fiat; and initiated investigations of unusual Irish tax arrangements for Apple, and Dutch incentives for Starbucks. French and German politicians have recently called on Google to pay more taxes in Europe, where Google’s search engine has a more than 80 percent market share.  And Britain has proposed a new 25 percent tax on the local profits of international companies.[iv]

As the motive for the tentative rebellion, much of Europe has yet to recover from the effects of enforced austerity, huge budget cuts and mass unemployment that followed the 2008 economic crisis. In the years following that crisis, Juncker presided over the Eurogroup of ministers who made critical decisions imposing austerity on countries like Greece and Spain, often at the behest of Germany.”[v] Now people are asking why, with budgets in crisis, wealthy corporations are given a bye on potentially billions of dollars in taxes. Under pressure, even Luxembourg has pledged to sign on to an expanded program that would share data on wealthy Europeans who have used Luxembourg to hide their money.

As the new Commission chief, Juncker denies that he was ever part of the problem. “I have never given illegal tax instructions,” he told the European Parliament. “Don’t depict me as a friend of big capital.”[vi] He has promised to do his utmost to make the system watertight, closing loopholes for profits from unethical tax avoidance. What we want to see,” he says, “are fairer rules between the different European member states.”

Whether corresponding action is taken, of course, remains to be seen, and depends heavily on the position taken by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

In much of the U.S., by contrast, government and taxes are resented as much as tax-dodging global corporations. President Obama wins little credit for denying – for six years and counting — tax incentives to U.S. global corporations for “repatriating” $1.7 trillion in accumulated earnings attributed – accurately or not – to overseas locations like Luxembourg or the Caribbean. Corporations reporting massive financial assets overseas have not budged either. They remember 2004, when (as reported earlier on this blog) President George W. Bush permitted “repatriation” of more than $300 billion in alleged overseas earnings at a derisory 5.25%, rather than the nominal 35% corporate rate. While the Bush deal had supposedly included corporate commitments to invest the newly available wealth in U.S. job creation, most was simply paid to happy stockholders, no strings attached.

The increasingly isolated Obama Administration has now also squashed, through new regulations, the hopes of U.S. companies of bringing home “overseas” profits tax-free by “inverting” corporate headquarters (for-tax-purposes-only) to another country[vii].

It seems likely that the Administration standoff with Apple and its peers will last until a new Administration takes office. But it could ultimately require a Presidential veto to block the massive gift to the richest. Congress would be open to acting now. Outgoing Senate President Harry Reid has publicly suggested a 9.5% repatriation tax[viii], and Republican Ron Paul would offer 5%[ix]. And, at the end of a 2014 hearing highlighting Apple, Inc.’s phony attribution of taxable earnings to a variety of overseas tax havens, Permanent Investigations Committee Chair Carl Levin gushed about what a great company Apple was, and how he loved his I-Phone. No legislation resulted from the hearing.

Republicans, and some Democrats, in fact, would like to go still farther toward global corporate independence, supporting a shift away from taxing overseas earnings of global companies altogether, and toward a “territorial tax,” in which virtually stateless corporations would pay taxes country-by-country, presumably wherever their lawyers could pretend they had earned the money.[x]

A key missing element in this kind of “reform” is any demand for honest proof as to where the wealth is created.

Evidence of false attribution of earnings, including to tiny buildings on Caribbean islands, is, in fact so abundant, and so obvious to any who care to investigate, that conversations about earnings “for tax purposes” can be fairly compared Alice’s conversations with Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass”:

When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master, that’s all.”

As for the question, “which is to be master?” in our 21st-century world — whether elected governments or for-profit corporations – a key test will be the willingness of governments to call bald-faced corporate lies by their name, and to collect fair taxes, reflecting facts on the ground. If semi-socialist European opinion will step into the breach on the tax issue, compel Juncker (and Angela Merkel) to change direction and move toward transparent and fair corporate taxation, the possibility of a positive answer will remain on the table.

– November, 2014

[i] In the Eye of a European Political Storm Stands a Quiet Enigma, JAMES KANTER, NY Times, JUNE 26, 2014

[ii] “Luxembourg Leaks:  Global Companies’ Secrets Exposed:  Leaked Documents Expose Companies’ Secret Tax Deals in Luxembourg,”

[iii] The Commissioner is actually nominated by European Union Prime Ministers, and then voted on by the E.U. Parliament – but the great powers – Gemany first – get their way.

[iv] British Government Proposes a ‘Google Tax’, NY Times, December 3, 2014By Mark Scott and Stephen Castle

[v] Kanter,ibid


[vi] “Juncker calls for tax harmonization”, Associated Press November 12

[vii]New Rules Make Inversions Less Lucrative, Experts Say,” David Gelles, NY Times, September 23, 2014

[viii] “Positively un-American tax dodges”, by Allan Sloan , @FortuneMagazine , July 7, 2014”

[ix]Apple CEO Tim Cook defends tax practices at Hill hearing”, Hayley Tsukayama,Washington Post, 05/21/2013

[x] Jia Lynn Yang and Suzy Khimm, Washington Post, November 29, 2012| Updated: Saturday, December 1

“American Nations” – Review

(review by Carl Proper)


“American Nations: A History Of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures Of North America”

by Colin Woodward

Viking Penguin, New York, 2011


As the U.S. approaches another election, with a polity seemingly more divided than at any time in living memory, a re-read of a book analyzing our divisions, written shortly before our last Presidential election, seems in order.

Colin Woodard’s “American Nations: A History of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America” offers a thought-provoking analysis for political or union organizers, with an antidote for such overly broad characterizations as “Southern” or “American” culture. Woodard argues, instead, that several very different European cultures, brought centuries ago to the New World, are still with us in updated form. Spanish conquistadors, British Puritans, French explorers, Barbados planters, Dutch mercantilists, Scottish and Irish workers and farmers, German pacifists, or the second sons of British nobles created the molds into which their successors still fit.

A key question this analysis might suggest for organized Labor, including advocates for a Second “Operation Dixie”[1] is to what extent can a single strategy for organizing “the (entire) South” address differing regional issues? Should we not distinguish between border areas like Tennessee, Kentucky or West Virginia, which may be more open than the Deep South to appeals to individual liberty (against capitalist exploitation – but potentially for “right to work”?) Could we not appreciate that most residents of “Tidewater” regions (such as eastern Virginia or North Carolina) suspect that “all men are created (well, sort of) equal?” Should we not ask whether residents of states that waffled as to whether to secede from the Union in the 1860’s are more amenable to union rights today than the unrepentant former slave economies of the Deep South? And could a focus on building union power in border regions help tip the national balance in a more labor-friendly direction?

Woodard’s central argument is that the founding cultures of each “nation” are the heart of our regional cultures today. Generation after generation of global and internal migrants, he insists, have learned to fit in with their new neighbors by adapting the local culture, much as the families of New England Yankees or Deep Southerners (or their descendants) eventually do today.


Though the first, widely separatedAmerican Nations 4 elements of the American patchwork (in the 15-1600’s), had grown more physically close by the time of the American Revolution, Woodard notes, they still saw themselves as distinct nations. Even after two terms as President of the United States, for example, Thomas Jefferson still meant “Virginia” when he spoke of his “country.” Woodard sees somewhat larger regional nations today, sharing common founding myths, like Jamestown, Plymouth or The Alamo. We have not, he would persuade us, fully abandoned or blended our Western, Midlands or New Netherland value sets. We just agree to understand the same terms differently.

The vision Woodard presents of the U.S.A. is of a federation more akin to the European Union or the British Isles than to a unitary state. (Interestingly, a similar vision of the distinct “nations” now constituting today’s Spain is explicit in the program of Spain’s new left “Podemos” Party.)[2]

The history of “American Nations,” in brief, describes how:

  • New England’s communal, missionary Puritans, who relied on local government and universal (religious) education to enforce moral norms, became today’s secular, communal, pro-government and pro-education missionaries; successfully evangelizing their culture to Maritime Canada and the west coast – and sticking to their commitment to build a more perfect society here on Earth.
  • “Tidewater” Virginia, Maryland and eastern North Carolina, where “gentlemen” like Washington, Jefferson and their descendants defended their personal liberty to rule over both poor whites and blacks — whom they recognized, at least, as fellow humans, akin to the British rural and working classes.
  • Deep South “slave lords,” after relocating to the mainland from brutal Caribbean plantations, also understood – and still understand — “liberty” as the right of the few, but further perceived abject servitude as natural for an inherently inferior majority. In slavery days, the punishment of “being sold down the river” from Tidewater to the Deep South, was understood as a probable death sentence.
  • The “Borderland / Greater Appalachian” descendants of hardscrabble Scots-Irish “hands” who escaped subjugation in the Deep South by pioneering in vast and lawless forests to the West – now running from Western North Carolina, Kentucky and Tennessee to East Texas. Woodard argues that Borderlanders tend to value individual (non-communal) liberty for all. They remain undecided as to whom they resent more, Deep South slave lords or self-righteous Yankees.
  • “New Netherlands” (New York City and areas of expansion to the west), founded by mercantile investors from the European nation most tolerant of immigrants and outsiders, remains the U.S.’ polyglot financial capital today.
  • “Midland” Pennsylvania and New Jersey, and their German-led westward expansion, are our most egalitarian (sometimes pacifist) region, but distrustful of government power and government solutions.
  • The “Far West,” (Idaho to Kansas) a region of prairie heat, drought, storms and depleted land, the last settled and least naturally hospitable region, remains internally colonized by giant corporations – first the railroads, and then extraction industries – based outside their “nation.”
  • The “Left Coast,” originally colonized by prospectors and pioneers, and then by New England cultural “missionaries” who founded universities wherever they went, retains its (more laid-back) alliance with northeastern liberals today, but adding a greater environmental appreciation.
  • “El Norte,” a socially unified region on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, with relationships and bodies continuously crossing that line in the sand, has more in common internally than with Southern Mexico or the rest of the U.S. – and may, one day, delete that border altogether.
  • Our most liberal nation, “New France,” divided between French eastern Canada, northeastern New England and the Louisiana destination of exiled Arcadians. New France is more open than the rest of us to reconciliation with the civilization that preceded white, black and yellow Americans to our hemisphere.
  • First Nation – some in internal southwestern exile, but also a large, self-governing, region of Canada, defending their sustainable traditions locally and advocating for them globally. In alliance with New France, a potentially dominant force above the U.S. border.

What might this vision imply for future efforts to organize? The UAW may have found a better opening for southward expansion in “Greater Appalachian” Chattanooga, Tennessee than is likely to be found in most Deep South areas, where anti-Labor and anti-Yankee sentiment is more deep-rooted. The VW (and UAW?) location, once divided in its Civil War sympathies, still harbors mixed attitudes today. Possibly, a labor-management, “Works Council,” (and — unavoidably) “right to work” approach to organizing will succeed more readily here than universal unionization. If Woodard has anything to teach us, it is that a “one size fits all” approach risks stimulating unnecessary obstacles in libertarian land.

Another question for consideration: do we risk uniting our opposition by working from an ahistorical label like “Dixie” when we know that Kentucky, West Virginia and parts of Tennessee fought for the union, some “Southern” states seceded only reluctantly, and many there hated the slave lords and resent today’s corporate lords as much as the people of New Hampshire? Recognizing more subtle regional distinctions, why not pursue a Border State and Tidewater alliance, pursue only targets of real opportunity in the Deep South, and seek to isolate the hard core?


As for Woodard, he sees a political struggle between long-term alliances over the last century, led by New England and the Deep South. His vision of unchanging cultures, however, is fundamentally pessimistic, and leaves him with little reform to recommend at the end of his history. He offers no suggestion as to what might break libertarian Borderlanders away from the Deep South, tie a growing El Norte more closely to the Left Coast, or New France to New England – other than possible secessions from Mexico or Canada.

Woodard is certainly open to charges of stereotyping rich regional cultures – but his stereotypes have history and extensive analysis behind them, avoid monolithic characterizations like “the South,” and culture-free assumptions that state political borders define attitudes. He also avoids the largest stereotype — “one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.”



[1] See, for example, Douglas Williams and Cato Unicensis, “A Call for a Second Operation Dixie?” in Democratic Left (Labor Day 2014) and on this blog.

[2] “Spain is a nation of nations. The Right does not understand this. For us, therefore, the only way to reinvent Spain is through a form of federalism. And from that federalist basis, from a new form of regional integration, we can begin rebuilding Europe.” – Sebastiaan Faber, September 9, 2014, The Volunteer


Scientists and Their Gods

Carl Proper, April / July, 2014


“I believe in Spinoza’s God,” physicist Albert Einstein famously stated, but “not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.”

Paleontologist and Jesuit priest, Father Teilhard de Chardin, also living in the early 20th century, saw things differently: “The impersonal cosmos (the body) and the personal God (the soul) are uniting,” he believed. “Eventually, the world will have a single Soul.”

“People simply believe because they want to,” says the author of The Atheist and the Bonobo, Frans DeWaal. “This applies to all religions.”

I naturally — or perhaps as a consequence of a Christian upbringing (now mostly discarded) – assume, with Teilhard, that there is a deep and lasting significance to our lives in a vast universe. And, as a person with some education, I acknowledge the validity of the scientific method, which brings new and tested revelations every day. To see how these perspectives can be reconciled, we will look in this paper at the views of some modern prophets– scientists — to see how they understand body and spirit, matter and consciousness, determinism and free will, and the likely destiny – if any — of our species.

Common to the individuals discussed below is a perspective that looks far into the past and future, as well as far into space, to explain daily realities on the ground. Within this large framework, how might science and faith consistently address the questions summarized in the corner of Paul Gaugin’s painting of a South Sea paradise? “Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

As a guide for the journey, I will take the admonition of Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama of Tibet: “empirical evidence should triumph over scriptural authority, no matter how deeply venerated a scripture may be.” That is, where science and religion conflict, go with the science. But where both point in the same direction, have faith.

As for Frans DeWaal’s (and Stephen Jay Gould’s) conviction, shared by some of my friends and many thoughtful students of science (my daughter included) — that there is nothing in the universe but the physical reality of matter, that there is no direction to evolution beyond the struggle of genes to survive, that humans are just one more species among many, that consciousness (presumably) is nothing but the interaction of neurons, and there is certainly no immanent, transcendent or developing consciousness that unites the universe – I disagree. I join with several, if not all, of the philosophers and scientists discussed below, in sensing a mysterious or sacred aspect to reality – as well as perceiving an objective and purposeful direction to the development of our universe, this planet, life on Earth – and perhaps to life on other planets as well.

Though we may not individually reach mankind’s, or our universe’s final destination, there is a basis for faith that we, as a species, are on a path toward a higher understanding.

I am concerned that the now common view among educated people that our universe, life, and conscious awareness are just random accidents, leading to an eventual dead end of no lasting significance, is a misreading of science as well as religion — a source of unnecessary sadness, and possible passivity in the face of real opportunities and threats.   It is my hope that the present inquiry may be of use to my own children, or to others seeking to reconcile the contradictions of life.

Baruch Spinoza: Natural Law is God’s Law


Baruch Spinoza was born in liberal Amsterdam in 1632, ten years before the birth of Isaac Newton in England, and near the dawn of modern scientific culture. He was descended from grandparents who had emigrated from Portugal to escape the church-led Inquisition that extended at that point throughout the Iberian Peninsula.   At the age of twenty-four, he was placed on trial and expelled from the Jewish community of Amsterdam for what the religious leadership deemed flagrant and outspoken atheism. He flatly rejected the charges, insisting that he saw God in everything.

spinoza Utterly confident and uncompromising in his philosophical views, Spinoza was kind and humble in interpersonal relationships, earning a modest living at work in his small apartment, grinding glass for microscopes and telescopes. He also made little money from his philosophical work – most of it banned from public sale, but widely distributed hand-to-hand. His ideas attracted the attention of European intellectuals like Gottfried Leibniz, co-inventor of calculus (and hypocritical butt of Voltaire’s Candide). He died at the age of forty-five, probably from respiratory infirmities stemming from his profession.


Einstein explained his admiration for Spinoza by crediting him as “the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things (and) the first to apply with strict consistency the idea of an all-pervasive determinism to human thought, feeling, and action.”

Spinoza, in fact, defined God and Nature (the entire physical and conscious world) as one and the same: God WAS Nature.   And, he wrote, “things have been produced by God in the highest degree of perfection.” Since, logically, God could ONLY act perfectly, “things could be created in no other mode or order by him,” and would continue, essentially unchanged, throughout eternity.

Progress and change were not to be expected in a universe already and always perfect. Even God / Nature, therefore, “does not act from freedom of the will.” And to attribute tragic or positive events on Earth to divine intervention in the natural order, rather than seeking a rational explanation, was “the last refuge of ignorance.”

Of course, if even God must act in accord with the laws of Nature, humans, Spinoza believed, also lack free will. Human minds and bodies (Spinoza wrote at a time before the brain was generally recognized as the locus of thought) were one and the same. Every thought and every action is predetermined, but seems to us an act of choice, due to our incomplete understanding. “Man considers himself free,” writes Spinoza, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”[i]

Remarkably, and in no less defiance of the political norms of his day than in his religious views, Spinoza advocated complete free thought, political freedom, and democracy with the same vigor as he denied the ultimate existence of free will in a deterministic universe.

Speaking with a passion no doubt derived from his personal experience, he insisted that “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts… “[T]he more rulers strive to curtail freedom of speech, the more obstinately are they resisted… [T]he object of government is not to change men from rational beings into beasts or puppets, but to enable them to develop their minds and bodies in security, and to employ their reason unshackled… In fact, the true aim of government is liberty”

In politics as in science and religion, he blazed the path that many scientists follow to this day.

Spinoza was a man who followed his vision fearlessly, wherever it took him, living quietly, but writing and arguing with fire. Other than his linguistic preference for defining all of existence as “God,” rather than “Nature”, he precociously laid down the underlying principles of science almost 250 years before Einstein’s great year of discovery in 1905.

From this author’s point of view, however, Spinoza both defined the practical, deterministic path and assumptions natural science must follow, and articulated its central contradiction: if free choice is ultimately an illusion, what can words like “truth” and “freedom” mean? If there is not real choice somewhere, are we not just puppets on a stage? And, of course, in defining Nature as at all times perfect, Spinoza – and his times – had, as yet, no inkling of evolution.

Spinoza’s re-unification of body and spirit may prove his most lasting contribution – moving Western thought away from the Platonist view that the world we can see and touch is not real or worthy. He challenged the Christian view of his day, that the ideal and unseen universe of Heaven was vastly more important than anything that could be accomplished “down here” in the world of dirt and sin.


Albert Einstein: A Mystery Behind the Machine?

Albert Einstein, probably the most famous scientist in history, was born in the late 1800s to moderately well-off, non-reliEinsteingious Jewish parents in southwestern Germany. Like Isaac Newton in an earlier era, his revolutionary ideas in many areas continue to draw challenges and win confirmation long after his death[ii]. As a rebel and a Jew in early 20th century Germany, he had to struggle to win acceptance – then modestly accepted global rock-star status when his predictions of light bending and shifting toward red under the influence of gravity were experimentally found accurate, consistent with his General Theory of Relativity.

In his adherence to scientific principle, Einstein was as confident and uncompromising as Spinoza defending his philosophy. In the words of biographer Walter Isaacson, “Einstein… believed, as did Spinoza, that a person’s actions were just as determined as that of a billiard ball, planet or star.” “Everything is determined,” the voice of doom insisted, “the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” Lest he be accused of pandering to the public, he added, “I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation.”

In his other religious and philosophical views, however, Einstein was less rigid. In contrast to Spinoza, he seems to have imagined a God distinct from our physical universe — possibly a Creator, but one who did not intervene in the daily affairs of the universe. “The most beautiful emotion we can experience,” he said, “is the mysterious…. To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”

His great discoveries and charming personality eventually won him huge popularity across the globe and in all classes of society, from Presidents to other scientists to the immigrant garment workers of New York City.

Both of the two scientific hard-ballers we have discussed so far were generally humane and modest in their personal lives, and generously radical in their political views – Spinoza as a democrat ahead of his time, and Einstein as a socialist. “From the standpoint of daily life,” Einstein put it, “there is one thing we do know; that we are here for the sake of others”

Einstein’s commitment to Spinoza’s determinism, however, and even his revelation of Relativity, may have placed excessive constraints on the free development of life, and science. His refusal to accept the findings of quantum science, with their suggestions of uncertainty, and their modifications to perfect “billiard ball” causation, Einstein came to appear unreasonably stubborn to some. He never overcame his mistrust in such quantum weirdness as “entangled” particles moving in tandem across cosmic distances.[iii] “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us,” he said, “with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

As for Relativity, his graphic vision of Time as a fourth dimension opened possibilities for exploring the vast universe, while the speed-of-light “speed limit” in the theory suggested that humanity might remain trapped forever in a blue-green prison cell, staring through the window at a universe too far away to explore in the lifetime of any individual, or even the human race.

Charles Darwin: Nothing Stays the Same

While Spinoza described an essentially unchanging universe, and Einstein sought to expose unchanging laws, history and constant change were the essence of Charles Darwin’s work. He brought new, specific – and, for many people, unacceptable — answers to Gauguin’s three questions (see first and last pages of this essay): We are animals, related to all life on Earth; we are descended from earlier life forms; and we will continue to evolve. Like Spinoza, Darwin believed he was revealing God’s ways to man. His discoveries, though, provoked endless denunciation from those who believed in God’s daily management of the world, man’s uniqueness and our centrality to God’s plan. Creation, Darwin showed, is a continuous, natural process, and we are one of the most recent results.

Darwin’s ideas, merged in the Darwinearly 20th century with the science of genetics, provide the framework for the modern science of biology

Darwin was born in 1809 to a wealthy, Protestant, rural English family. His father encouraged him to be a farmer or Minister, but Darwin loved biology instead. His great opportunity arrived when, at the age of twenty-seven, he was hired as biologist on a five-year voyage that took him, aboard the HMS Beagle, to the islands of Cape Verde and Galapagos, to Brazil, and elsewhere. His close observation, in particular of differences among species of finches, each of which had apparently developed on a different Galapagos island, and of many similar histories, was followed by years of analysis, back home in England. Follow-up studies included rural English breeders’ guided re-design of various domestic species, and observations of change in many other species of plants and animals.   These strengthened and confirmed his world-changing theory.

Darwin at first frightened himself as he followed his observations to their logical conclusion, that all living species have been created through a natural process, over long periods of time – and not through divine intervention. He had developed a vision of a world where God lacked a role in everyday affairs, and where species, not individuals were the key actors. Humans, in this new interpretation, were descended from other, earlier species – making us peers, in this respect, to all of life.


As Darwin well understood, his discoveries challenged millennia of human belief, including the traditional Western perspective of human dominion over the world, based on individuals’ personal relationship with God. Other than a few articles, he did not write or publish his dangerous conclusions until after a competitor, Alfred Wallace, sent him a letter outlining virtually the same theory, based on field research in Brazil and the Malay Archipelago. At an 1858 presentation of both theories to the Linnaean Society, which Darwin did not attend, his discovery was recognized as prior to, and more thoroughly researched than Wallace’s. He then quickly published his work and findings in his magnum opus, “On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection,” which dealt with non-human development. This was followed a few years later by the still more shocking “The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.”

Darwin CreatorFor his earthshaking ideas, Darwin was widely attacked, as he had known he would be, by traditional religious leaders. Over time, his own religious faith dwindled to a more agnostic position.

What was in his vision that so shocked traditional thinkers in his day, and still shocks today?

Following the discoveries of geologist Charles Lyell, Darwin described a world many millions of years old. Life, he said, had eventually emerged, spread and developed into innumerable species over many generations. New creatures had come into being through “natural selection” of the varieties best adapted to changing circumstance. The best-adapted individuals survived, displaced the rest, and the species changed.

Natural selection is good for the species, but not for each individual. The process is random, statistical – and inevitable. Darwin adheres to the guiding principle of science – determinism.   There is in his writing no suggestion of intent or direction to evolution.

And nothing in Darwin’s work suggests that he believed evolution would end with us. It is, we now recognize, our destiny to adapt to changes as they come along, or to die out. Over time, if we survive, we will become one or more different species.

  • Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: The Evolution of God


TeilhardBorn in France, in the last year of Darwin’s life (1881), Jesuit Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, was a committed believer in the evolution of life and the universe. He added to our knowledge of the evolutionary process as a practicing paleontologist, participating in excavation of the hominid skeleton known as “Peking Man.” As a mystic and Catholic philosopher, he also developed an original vision in which – and on this one point Spinoza might have agreed – matter and spirit were aspects of the same substance.

By re-envisioning evolution in a spiritual framework, Teilhard shocked the sensibilities of both hard scientists and orthodox Christians, but also managed also to attract supporters on both sides of the divide.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church tolerated Teilhard for his deep spirituality, but did its best throughout his lifetime to protect the world from his unorthodox views.[iv] He was ordered, around 1923, to halt his lectures at the Catholic Institute. A few years later, his Jesuit superiors forbid him to teach altogether. His greatest work, The Phenomenon of Man, written in 1938, and other works, were blocked from official publication until after his death in 1955.

Forbidden to teach, preach, or publish, deChardin spent more than twenty years doing geologic and paleologic research in China – where exposure to the rising influence of radical socialism may have affected his vision of a rising, unified world consciousness.  The Church’s ban on his work was finally lifted in 1966, and by1981, the Vatican news outlet, l’Osservatore Romano, gave deChardin positive front-page coverage. Today, he has an international following, including many Jesuits who see him as a prophet.

As for the scientific response to Teilhard’s work, with a few important exceptions, colleagues dismissed his views.   “In 1961, Nobel Prize-winner Peter Medawar, a British immunologist, wrote a scornful review of The Phenomenon of Man for the journal Mind,[15] calling it ‘a bag of tricks’ and saying that the author had shown ‘an active willingness to be deceived.”

What was the philosophy that provoked such controversy?

For his supporters on both sides of the scientific / religious divide, de Chardin “squared the circle,” – resolving the conflict between the view that consciousness (spirit) is only an emergent feature of matter organized at a high level of complexity; and the insistence that “spirit” is immortal and distinct from matter. Teilhard argued that matter and consciousness are different aspects of the same reality at a fundamental level. A sort of pre-consciousness is inherent in all matter, he believed. It represents a tendency toward purposeful development, and eventually emerges as the consciousness of humans (and of some animals with complex neurological structure).

DeChardin expected that evolution on Earth would continue toward a higher stage: the emergence of a unified “collective, humane consciousness.” Individuals would continue to exist, but also – in a way analogous to cells forming a body – share a common consciousness. This destination he defined as the “Omega Point,” and sometimes equated with God himself.

Full consciousness, then, in Teilhard’s view, naturally emerges from matter organized at a high level of complexity, but as an inherent tendency of material nature to reflect on itself, not as a wholly new phenomenon.

God evolves.[v]

The course of Earthly events is not only toward greater complexity, leading to fuller consciousness, but toward the unity of human awareness and spirit – toward a moral, positive end. (He maintained his views even in the face of the horrific violence and hatred of two world wars — in the first of which he served as an ambulance driver — nuclear weapons and cold war. It is a vision based as much on faith and hope as on scientific study.)

For the science, and to some extent for his vision, Teilhard won the backing of biologist Julian Huxley, one of the architects of the “modern synthesis” of evolution and genetics. Huxley, the son of “Darwin’s bulldog” and defender, Thomas Huxley, wrote the Introduction to The Phenomenon of Man, in the face of criticism for allowing “magical” views to pollute science.

Teilhard also cited in support of his views the words of an early 20th century biologist and polymath J.B.S. Haldane, (whose name will come up again in discussing the contemporary view of evolution).   “We do not,” Haldane wrote, “find obvious evidence of life or mind in so-called inert matter….but if the scientific point of view is correct, we shall ultimately find them, at least in rudimentary forms, all through the universe…. Now, if the co-operation of some thousands of millions of cells in our brain can produce our consciousness, the idea becomes vastly more plausible that the co-operation of humanity, or some sections of it, may determine what Comte calls a Great Being.” This was also Teilhard’s view.[vi]

In a separate essay, Haldane also pointed out that early Christians, including St. Paul, were “materialists” in believing in bodily resurrection after death, rather than imagining a soul separated from the body.[vii]

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin both promoted and pushed back against Darwin’s life work, which took pre-scientific spirituality out of natural history. Teilhard helped to confirm and followed Darwin’s historical framework. At the same time, he restored a spirituality integrated with science. He believed that, with faith, science and spirituality can walk together.

Isaac Asimov and the Adventure of Science


Like religion, science also brings us visions.   We understand reality through mythic stories, as our distant ancestors did. Science fiction, in particular,             offers myths in which people like us explore as-yet unreachable regions of the planet, the universe and our future. These stories both enhance our understanding of the world, and illustrate the adventure, the power and the payoff of challenging and possibly boring scientific work.


Let’s take a quick look at some stories. We’ll begin with a different kind of scientific genius – Isaac Asimov.

Asimov was born in Russia in 1920. His family emigrated to the U.S. when he was three. He died in New York City in 1992.   During his lifetime, Asimov wrote during most of his waking hours, producing or editing more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.   The books included both “real” science – he was a Professor of Biochemistry at Boston University — and science fiction.

Among his most popular works were the Foundation and Robots science fiction series. In Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation, Asimov imagined a universe millenia in our future, populated by quintillions of people (surprisingly no more evolved than us), occupying and travelling casually between millions of populated planets and thousands of galaxies. In this universe, honest scientists and liberal democrats struggle against the forces of ignorance and oppression. Spoiler alert: in Asimov’s work, the good guys win. Technology is not the central issue; character is. But technology delivers on its promise.

In Asimov’s The Robots of Dawn and other Robot stories, helpful humanoid robots serve humanity. They are bound, unlike us — or our drones — by the three Laws of Robotics, to do no harm to humans. For the agnostic author, the universe tends toward morality. And, our expectations are raised for science’s ability to take us to the stars.

Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek television series of the 1970’s and ‘80’s also shaped the imagination of a generation, attracting millions of viewers, and giving a basis for “Trekkie” conventions years after the show left the air. New and sometimes “far out” concepts were explored in imaginative ways. A Bethesda neighbor of mine today, for example, now a semi-retired technology writer, recently wrote of a Roddenberry show that explored the inner workings of our brains, under the pretext of merging a Starship character’s cerebrum with the ship’s guidance mechanism.[viii] The show, at least for Bob Burruss, raised the distinction between reductionist neuroscience and Teilhard’s vision of consciousness. Neuroscience, he notes, defines consciousness as an emergent arrangement of matter, while Teilhard (and I) view it as an emergent property.

Movies, of course, also spread new and old speculation about alternative realities. The unabashedly mythic Star Wars movie universe, created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, is populated by a wide variety of differently humanoid creatures from other galaxies, reflecting late-twentieth-century America’s increasingly cosmopolitan vision. Scientific knowledge and technology, again, are important to the extent they make the “game” of life more exciting.

It would be hard to find a scientist or astronaut today who was NOT inspired in youth by the artistic visions of one of these creators.

The distinction between a hopeful, but un-fact-checked science fiction vision of a universe — one where our descendants move freely through the vastness of space — and the restrictive vision of relentless determinism and relativity often pits hopeful “dreamers” against gloomy “realists”. The Realists, based on today’s limited knowledge, would confine the human race eternally to an insignificant portion of the universe, virtually encaged by the speed of light. But Dreamers – including some hard-headed scientists — see in the uncertainties and weirdness of quantum science, in suggestions of an anti-gravity in the expansion of our universe, and in other recent discoveries or speculations, the chance for an escape from the absurdity of a world where we look through our telescopes to the farthest times and distances of our universe – which we will never be able to reach.

Science fiction visions add greatly to the high regard we have for scientific research in our day. While science still competes with old-time religion as a way of explaining reality to the non-academic population, it is a respected institution, with credibility derived from improving our lives and enlarging our world. It is, at this point, also understood as a force for expanding freedom.


Hazen       A contemporary view: Robert M. Hazen


A recent lecture series by Earth Scientist Robert Hazen, a Professor at George Mason University, available on CD by the Learning Company, and free at public libraries around the country, lays out in a matter-of-fact way a contemporary scientific view of who we humans are, and how and from where we have arisen. His work represents, for the most part, an expert, consensus view, with lectures focused mainly on detailed chemical and geologic factors, summaries of key experiments, consideration of varied possibilities, and so on.

But in tracing the probable origins of life on Earth, and singling out dominant trends over millions of years, Professor Hazen presents a profound and rather stunning vision of life and consciousness as natural, almost inevitable products of our material planet, the energy supplied to us by the sun, and eons of time. And probably not the final products.

In his close analysis of nature, Prof. Hazen reinforces much of Teilhard De Chardin’s message: there is a direction to evolution, one of growing complexity, newly emergent[ix] patterns and behaviors, and gradual revelation of new and unpredictable characteristics of matter.

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, Hazen explains, and the planet cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life, and eventually, after a long Darwinian process, to conscious life.

Hazen describes a random but evolutionary process in our universe through which, once a large enough number of interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, simple molecules, or complex organic molecules and organisms — and energy is applied to the system, – the units self-organize into patterns, forming complex and completely novel structures. New behaviors “emerge.” Billions of stars organize into galaxies, grains of sand self-organize into sand dunes, large numbers of neurons form animal brains, brains form networks with up to trillions of connections and grow increasingly conscious. Scientists and mathematicians are still struggling to formulate a mathematical description for the process – but it happens.

“Random,” that is to say, does not mean “without direction,” in Hazen’s argument – far from it.   “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life…. [These emerging structures and behaviors] appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.” Conscious awareness, for example, is considered to gradually “emerge” as a product of matter energized and organized to growing levels of complexity[x]. Our brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware.

 “Spirit” (consciousness) is now associated with a material process, but the question whether this new “behavior” simply is matter is not addressed. If so, there would certainly be more to matter than we had previously imagined. [xi]

“And perhaps,” Hazen adds in his conclusion to the twenty-four lecture course, “the universe [elsewhere] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.[xii]

Potentially emergent further along in the process of this universe, as one of many possibilities, could be something similar to Teilhard’s, or Haldane’s or Comte’s “Great Being” – a unified human consciousness – though we cannot know in advance which way nature will move. “We recognize this progression only in hindsight,” Hazen asserts. “Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.”

Whatever future steps may await our species, Hazen’s lectures challenge not only traditional religious distinctions between matter and spirit, but also the view of the late evolutionary biologist and atheist, Stephen Jay Gould (or Frans deWaal) that humans are only one more among myriad equal life forms on our planet[xiii]. The identification of a trend toward increasing complexity supports instead, a Teilhard-like vision of human life as the growing shoot of life’s development – with our complex and conscious brains at the tip of the shoot.

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required for the development of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program. Confronted with questions of this kind, some scientists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life emerges.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and certainly no hint of possibly different natural laws.

Back in our universe and on Earth, given the natural flow of the process, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. It is likely, as well, that initial conditions similar to those on Earth may have existed on planets, in other solar systems. Life may already have emerged elsewhere, or will emerge in the future. Certainly, many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”[xiv]


CONCLUSION: The convergence of science and religion



                     Determinism                                                                             Materialism                   trapped          C

 In Stephen Jay Gould’s writing, as in Frans De Waal’s “The Atheist and the Bonobo” (a movingly written treatise on the natural origins of morality in earlier life forms) — the universe, Earth, life and consciousness simply are. We have, a common atheist message seems to say, arrived here without a plan, and will move forward on a random path, possibly a short one, until entropy is restored. The human species is one among many species, all of equal value, all made of the same building blocks, and none more “advanced” than another. There is no direction, no destination, and little purpose beyond consoling each other and appreciating the beauty of the day. If the human race were to disappear, and the rest of life to remain, the loss would be of minor importance.

While DeWaal is condescendingly respectful of the socially adaptive utility of religion, he is also fundamentally dismissive of faith. Effectively paraphrasing Spinoza, he asserts that, “People simply believe because they want to,” he says. “This applies to all religions… Accepting that faith is driven by values and desires makes at once for a great contrast with science.”

But perhaps the contrast is not so great.

I would argue that deterministic materialism also requires a kind of faith – faith that our mental observations, though effectively programmed since the beginning of time, accurately describe reality at its deepest level. If the invariant motion of atoms controls all our thoughts, as Haldane noted, there is no foundation for logic[xv]And even Einstein acknowledged that “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.” [xvi]

I would say, instead, that paradox and uncertainty are as universal as cause and effect. We must have faith in our observations to live, or to do science.

Authors like Gould and DeWaal would also do well to acknowledge the variety of religious experience. They appear to limit “faith” to those who do not understand science, and substitute magical beliefs for cause and effect. This is true even though DeWaal begins his story by describing a panel he appeared on with Tibet’s Dalai Lama, who clearly stated that where science and religious scripture conflict, the scientific view should always prevail.

But that many people WANT to believe there is a real meaning to life, a goal for humanity, and the ability to make free decisions, is true enough. And as long as advocates for science insist that our consciousness is ONLY the collision of billiard-ball-like particlevendors briefly stimulated to life, that there is no direction to evolution, that humans are no more advanced than other animals, that the universe is out there for us to see, but too far away to touch, and so on, who would not look elsewhere for inspiration?

The man in the New Yorker cartoon has little reason to be happy:

And certainly, most of us would prefer to be one of the little automata turning aside for a smoke in the accompanying cartoon; rather than carrying on like one billiard ball striking another.

Fortunately, much of science has now moved beyond the “billiard ball” world of absolute certainty. We live in a world of quantum uncertainty that Einstein helped reveal, but later rejected, where “particles” exist simultaneously as “waves,” and may “entangle” with other particles vast distances away[xvii]. We hear that space and entire universes may appear complete and almost instantly from “singularities” of infinite heat and mass, but occupying no space. Numerous hardheaded scientists expect that life, probably similar to ours, exists in many parts of our universe, and are actively searching for it.   And many continue to believe we will one day travel throughout the universe, current Relativity Theory notwithstanding.

On the other side of the gap, some religions have come to terms with the expanding body of scientific knowledge. Early Unitarian philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote and preached about a God who was “immanent” in our bodies – not so different from Spinoza’s God. The Dalai Lama sees no contradiction between Buddhism and science. Many Christian churches place more emphasis on improving conditions in this world, rather than waiting for the next. And many people – especially young people — speak of being “spiritual,” but not “religious.”

The convergent descriptions by Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin and Earth Scientist Robert Hazen of the origins of life and consciousness point to a potential common understanding. If there is something in the nature of matter that tends toward life, consciousness and the probable emergence of more advanced states of awareness, the separation of matter and spirit may be unnecessary. If we are here so the universe can reflect on itself, if we have the potential for exploring that universe, and are at the beginning of that long adventure, if Einstein’s “superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe” is actually leading us toward a higher reality in this universe, do we still need an individual heaven?

As individuals, like all animals, we will die. But not for nothing.

I would argue that it is premature, at best, to conclude there is no intelligence behind our existence, or that our thoughts are so pre-determined as to disallow real decisions. There is a potentially great destiny for humanity, for life on Earth, and in our universe, if we take our choices seriously.  The emergence of consciousness from matter – and the potential in all matter for creating consciousness — is the most spectacular surprise to date.

To view faith as simply wishful thinking is wrong. Faith of some kind is a necessity for taking the next step.

Martin Luther King, like Teilhard de Chardin, had a vision of a promised land, one that he, as an individual, might never reach. “But I want you to know,” he said, on his last evening, “that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”

In a mission with a longer term than King was addressing that night, we are all in the same position. The potential for transcendent understanding is in us, but in its full form, surely far away.

Our universe seems directed toward the development of species and the creation of a self-aware whole, not the lives and deaths of individuals.

We can now answer, with ever-expanding detail, the questions on the painting below. But can we, one day, with our fellow-beings, make that paradise – not excluding the dying old woman on the left – real throughout our universe?  That will surely require faith and hope – and some force in the universe to back us up.

Who are we?  Where do we come from?  Where are we going?

                                                            Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? — Paul Gauguin





Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, Doubleday & Co, 1951, 1952, 1953

Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, with Introduction by George Levine, Barnes & Noble Classics, New York, 2004

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, manuscript 1938, first publication in English by Wm Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., London and Harper & Row, 1959, with Introduction by Julian Huxley, 1958; Harper Colophon edition published 1975

Frans De Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, Norton & Co., New York, 2013

Robert M. Hazen, “Origins of Life, Part 1 and Part 2,” audio lecture course and guidebook, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2005)

Walter Isaacson, “Einstein: His Life and Universe”, and:


Baruch Spinoza, selections from: Ethics, Part 1, and Theologico-Politico Treatise (from Monroe C. Beardsley, The European Philosophers From Descartes to Nietsche, Modern Library, New York, 1960


Matthew Steward, “The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza and the Fate of God”, 2006, Ww Norton & Co., New York

Robert Burruss, “Photons and Electrons: A Speculation On The Material Basis Of Consciousness, Inspired By Mr. Feynman And Capt. Picard’s Holodeck Horse,” posted: November 23, 2011

J.B.S. Haldane, “The Origin of Life,” (c. 1929)

Michael Powell, “A Knack for Bashing Orthodoxy,” NY Times, September 19, 2011

Chris Stedman, “Frans de Waal on Ken Ham, Richard Dawkins, and morality without religion” –

Wikipedia biographies:

Isaac Asimov

Charles Darwin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Stephen Jay Gould

J.B.S. Haldane


[i] Spinoza, Ethics, Part 1

[ii] Einstein’s prediction of “gravity waves” from the explosion that gave birth to our universe fourteen billion years ago was apparently confirmed a week before I write these words by scientists who may earn a Nobel Prize for their description of the “Big Bang.”

[iii] Isaacson (supra), p. 458

[iv] Much of the biographical material on Teilhard deChardin is from Wikipedia

[v] Much of the biographical material on Teilhard deChardin is from Wikipedia

[vi] J.B.S. Haldane, Essay on Science and Ethics in The Inequality of Man, Chatto, 1932; cited in Phenomenon of Man, p. 57

[vii] “…the earlyChristians held many views which are now regarded as materialistic. They believed in the resurrection of the body, not the immortality of the soul.” — J.B.S. Haldane, The Origin of Life,”   “The Origin of Life,” (c. 1929)

[viii] “Photons And Electrons: A Speculation On The Material Basis Of Consciousness, Inspired By Mr. Feynman And Capt. Picard’s Holodeck Horse,” unpublished article posted: November 23, 2011, by Robert Burruss

[ix] Emergence” is the consensus scientific view as to how new phenomena gradually develop in nature – rather than suddenly appearing from nowhere.

[x] Oliver Sacks, in a fascinating article, “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, reports on the long emergence of intelligence / mind / consciousness. Charles Darwin’s last book, Sacks notes, dealt with the contribution of worms to developing soil. Darwin believed he detected in worms “the presence of a mind of some kind.” His student, George John Romane, conducted research on nerve cells resembling our own in jellyfish. Later researchers have found that jellyfish have about one thousand neurons. Insects (bees) may have up to one million. An octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its ‘arms.’ Human brains have one hundred billion neurons, organized through trillions of connections. And Daniel Chamovitz, in “What a Plant Knows,” (2012) explains that, though plants lack neurons altogether, they “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signal, and much more.”

[xi] The question as to the nature and origins of consciousness has some relevance to this paper. That a phenomenon which most philosophers see as a different kind of thing from “inert” matter would suddenly emerge, ex nihilo, when matter reaches a certain level of complexity seems a virtual (and improbable) second creation. That consciousness may have evolved from the beginnings of material reality, and then “emerged” as a central life characteristic after a period of evolution seems more likely to me. A third possibility also exists – that some form of consciousness, or spirit, has an existence separate from brute matter, but normally aligns with matter in our universe.

[xii] Robert M. Hazen, “Origins of Life,” (guidebook to lecture course), Part 2, p. 72

[xiii] “life shows no trend to complexity in the usual sense — only an asymmetrical expansion of diversity…”, Stephen Jay Gould,   Eight Little Piggies: Reflections in Natural History, New York: W. W. Norton, 1993, p. 322.

[xiv] Hazen, “Origins of Life, Part 2”, guidebook, Lecture 24, p. 72

[xv] “[I]f my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”

[xvi] Isaacson (supra), p. 392

[xvii] As I revise this text, a new report has appeared in Science magazine and elsewhere of “entangled” particles transmitting information to each other at about ten thousand times the speed of light, not simultaneously.

Matter, Consciousness, and All That

1)      Is existence determined by the consistent behavior of fundamental material particles?

Spinoza and Albert Einstein were adamant on this point. In Einstein’s words, “Everything is determined, the beginning as well as the end, by forces over which we have no control.” He added, however: “I am compelled to act as if free will existed, because if I wish to live in a civilized society I must act responsibly.”

His convictions were challenged by the rise of quantum theory, which identified some areas of uncertainty. As Einstein’s biographer, Walter Isaacson[i], noted: “Einstein quickly realized that quantum theory could undermine classical physics.”   Einstein himself acknowledged that “It was as if the ground had been pulled out from under us, with no firm foundation to be seen anywhere.”

We live today in a quantum world. Scientists have shown they can make extremely accurate predictions based on deterministic cause and effect. The recent identification of “gravity waves,” as predicted by Einstein, which depended on amazingly precise measurement, is an example. But a world of quantum waves that may stretch to other parts of the universe, or “entangle” instantaneously with waves / particles in distant places, seems a less solid basis for deterministic causality than a world of particles colliding like billiard balls.

Where there is uncertainty, some freedom is not absolutely ruled out.


2)      Is consciousness merely the motion of molecules or the interaction of neurons in our brains?

No. Consciousness may be a product of those interactions, but most philosophers would agree that the experience of life is a different kind of thing from any observation one can make of it. As an illustration of the difference, Colin McGinn, writing in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, cites some well-known examples, noting that “a blind man ignorant of the nature of color will never come to understand what color is (while remaining blind),” and “our inability to imagine what it is like to be a bat is permanent, since our imagination is constrained by the type of mind that we happen to have.”

So, we know of at least two kinds of things in our universe: the interaction of matter, and the phenomenon of awareness, or consciousness.

The above does NOT contradict the possibility that our conscious thoughts are completely determined by their material base. Spinoza boldly dismissed all other possibilities: “Man considers himself free,” he says, “because he is conscious of his wishes and appetites, whilst at the same time he is ignorant of the causes by which he is led to wish and desire.”

Colin McGinn grimly acknowledges in the book review referenced above that: “If there is anyone left in the world who does not believe that the mind can be minutely controlled by the brain, right down to particular molecules, then this book (‘Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain,’ by Patricia S. Churchland) might disabuse them of such ideas.”

The late J.B.S. Haldane, a polymath and biologist in the first half of the 20th century, was an example of a person who did NOT believe physical matter controls our thoughts. More interestingly, he also commented that “if my mental processes are determined wholly by the motions of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true. They may be sound chemically, but that does not make them sound logically.”[ii]

The argument from logic resonates with me: if we lack free will, it seems quite a leap of faith to trust that ideas we were effectively programmed to hold long before we were born, are true.   How would we ever discover that we were NOT living in a “Matrix” situation? Are the wind-up toys in the cartoon on this page pre-programmed to understand their situation?

It may, in fact, be impossible to understand our situation here on Earth without faith of some kind. The same Baruch Spinoza who dismissed the possibility of ontological freedom also insists that political “freedom is absolutely necessary for progress in science and the liberal arts.” Einstein (and probably most scientists) would agree. Perhaps the “quantum weirdness” he resisted to the end of his days is our only hope for actual, not illusory freedom.


3)      Is there a direction to evolution?

Paleontologist / Catholic priest / philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, writing in the first half of the 20th century, described a mystical vision of evolution. Teilhard believed that all matter had a spiritual quality and was fore-ordained to evolve toward life (seen as a “biosphere” surrounding the Earth), then to individual consciousness (the noosphere), and then to universal consciousness, which he called the Omega Point. In effect, he shared Spinoza’s belief that God was immanent in Nature, but differed not only in understanding that life evolved, but in believing that it evolved through stages toward a moral transfiguration. For Teilhard, evolution was the ancient God’s progression through time toward the goodness of Christ.

Earth Sciences Professor Robert Hazen, in a Learning Company lecture course recorded on CD in 2005, lays out a more dispassionate view of the “Origins of Life” on our planet – but one still resonant of Teilhard’s revelation. The Theory of Emergence that Hazen and most contemporary scientists follow appears built into the nature of the universe itself. The direction is toward increasing complexity.

As Hazen describes the process of “emergence”, once enough interacting particles of any kind come together – whether hydrogen nuclei, stars, planets, complex molecules, organisms or neurons — and energy is applied to the system – the units self-organize into patterns of increasing complexity and novel structure. The new structures “appear to be much more than the sum of the parts… New, often surprising behaviors emerge with each new level of complexity.”

Once the Earth’s initial violent formation was completed, Hazen explains, and the planet cooled to a point where large water oceans could form, a process leading to life began. Whether in tidal pools, underwater vents or sheltered mineral deposits, simple molecules, energized by ultraviolet radiation in an atmosphere with no initial ozone protection, gradually and spontaneously combined into complex organic molecules, then to life.

In the course summary, Hazen gives an overview of the process that goes beyond the emergence of life. “The theory of emergence,” as he sums it up, “argues for an inexorable evolution of the cosmos, from atoms to stars to planets to life.” But “we recognize this progression only in hindsight…. Emergent phenomena are all but impossible to predict from observations of earlier stages.” [iii]

Hazen – and this is the consensus view of contemporary scientists — describes the origin of consciousness as simply the latest emergent step. Human brains are the most complex entities of which we are now aware. This places us, I would say, in a leading role on our planet.

But, “perhaps,” he concludes, “the universe [beyond Earth] holds levels of emergence beyond individual consciousness, and beyond even the collective accomplishments of human societies. If that’s true, then the story of life’s origins and evolution is far from over.”

Certainly, given the natural flow of evolution, it seems likely that new, more complex and surprising phenomena will continue to emerge. One possibility, among many, is that something akin to Comte, Haldane and Teilhard’s vision of an emerging collective consciousness on Earth lies in our future.

Many scientists in addition to Hazen, of course, now also find it likely that life may already have emerged elsewhere in the universe, or will emerge in the future. Certainly, many astronomers and biologists are looking for it. A “second genesis” on a different planet, Hazen points out, would “reveal countless details about life’s inevitable origin.”

As has been clear through one hundred fifty years of discussion about natural selection, no external intervention is required to shape Nature’s pattern of emerging complexity. We may, however, reasonably ask why it is that we live in a universe where this seemingly improbable trend is part of Nature’s program.

Hazen’s lectures, and the Theory of Emergence, in fact, challenge not only traditional religious distinctions between matter and spirit, but also the now common perspective that humans are only one among myriad equal life forms on our planet. Confronted with evidence of progressive and directional evolution, and with the extraordinary “friendliness” towards life in general on our planet, some scientists and some atheists have responded defensively, predicting that many other universes may exist, where nature’s laws are randomly different from ours, and NO life or no consciousness emerge.

As yet, there is no compelling evidence of any universe beyond our own, and certainly no hint of possibly different natural laws.

4)      Is consciousness an “arrangement” of matter, or a “property” of matter?

The question here – addressed directly by Teilhard de Chardin, but not by Hazen – is: does consciousness emerge ex nihilo from matter, once it attains a certain level of complexity, billions of years after formation of the universe? Or is there a “pre-conscious” characteristic of all matter, or of certain particles, that develops into “full” consciousness through a long evolutionary process?

A Bethesda neighbor of mine, Robert Burruss – a former newspaper technology writer, has suggested a way of thinking about the origins of consciousness in pre-life. Every physical interaction – down to the collision of a photon with an electron, or the reaction to sunlight of a stone – may be said to communicate some information. But actual intelligence or awareness would only begin with the ability to compare two events or states. Even a one-celled paramecium, of course, can distinguish between food (which it surrounds and absorbs) and non-food.

Also critical to perception and consciousness is the ability to filter out irrelevant information. Burruss uses the analogy of a newborn child whose senses receive an overwhelming amount of information which s/he is at first totally unable to differentiate. Vision, for example, would be a complete blur until the mind learns to focus on discrete objects and ignore the rest.

A rock in the sun would, by comparison, have no means to compare or filter all the information reaching it – but the material of which it is made would still have the potential for consciousness when properly organized.

However this may be, many investigators have traced the origins of consciousness far back in time, if not to an elementary “quantum” unit of a colliding electron and photon.

Oliver Sacks, for example, in a fascinating article, “The Mental Life of Plants and Worms, Among Others,” in the April, 2014 New York Review of Books, reports on numerous scientific investigations into the emergence of “mind” or consciousness. Daniel Chamovitz, for one, comments in “What a Plant Knows,” (2012) that, though plants lack neurons, they “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signal, and much more.” Charles Darwin believed he detected in worms “the presence of a mind of some kind.” His student, George John Romane, conducted what he described as “comparative psychology” research on nerve cells in jellyfish. The young Sigmund Freud, working in a physiology lab in Vienna, “was able to show and illustrate, in meticulous, beautiful drawings, that the nerve cells in crayfish were basically similar to those of lampreys—or human beings.”

More recent research has added numbers to this history. Jellyfish have about one thousand nerve cells, bees have up to one million, and the octopus may have half a billion nerve cells distributed between its brain and its ‘arms.’ Human brains are distinguished by our one hundred billion neurons, organized through trillions of connections.

Though Hazen appears to argue that emergence initiates completely novel realities, which appear to be much more than the sum of their parts, I favor the view of consciousness as a property of matter, which then emerges into full bloom in higher forms of animal life. Since consciousness is so fundamentally different from “billiard ball” matter, its sudden appearance from nowhere, billions of years after the formation of matter, would seem more like a second creation than simply the product of a new structure of matter, comparable to planets forming from the residue of exploded stars, or organic molecules learning to reproduce.

There appears, in any event, to be a characteristic of matter that can produce the immaterial phenomenon of consciousness, a quality which may have evolved from the beginning of time. This is a remarkable characteristic of our universe, one that would be hard to account for as “just the way things are.” Perhaps it was among the factors that prompted Einstein’s observation that: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly: that deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.”[iv]


5. Will the future be like today?

In speaking of universal history as a slow and often bloody march of progress, we must consider what to expect of the future. Obviously, and even if we assume that all is determined, we don’t know. But there are a number of realistic and radical possibilities:

  • We now have it in our power to destroy ourselves and most life on Earth. Anyone’s guess on this is as good as another’s. I would hope there is another populated planet – or perhaps a million – to pick up in case we drop out.
  • “Synthetic biology” is now the subject of high school experiments and courses. This is about creating new life forms. We can expect human and animal life to be changed in science labs in fantastic ways, for good, ill or both.
  • Space travel may turn out to be viable.       We may encounter intelligent life outside our solar system and be changed for better or worse.
  • Collective human consciousness, or other weirdness may be emerging outside our awareness. Next steps may not be obvious.
  • Or, we may just continue to evolve in less dramatic ways

It seems likely that change will accelerate, and the future will look very different.


6)  “Religious” questions

We will deal here with questions that don’t have definite answers, but perhaps we can narrow the differences between “believers” and “atheists” by looking beyond the least probable.


      Is reality eternal?

The universe today is known to be larger than people throughout most of history could have imagined. There are trillions of stars (at least) and possibly many planets with life. Some scientists speculate that there are many universes, and others popping (Big Banging) into existence from “time?” to “time.” Our material / mental multiverse could be eternal, with universes rising and falling and rising again.

If universes collapse into “singularities” and rise again, then entropy, time and life could be cyclical. Our religious myths are mostly too small. Only science fiction seems to have any grip on the situation.


      Is Nature God?

This perspective seemed good enough for Spinoza, who was dazzled by the rise of natural science. For most of us, if there is no purpose, there is no God.

But a God “immanent” in Nature, and moving, through us, in a definite direction, was good enough for Teilhard de Chardin, and could be inspiration enough for most of us.


      Is God / Nature “good?” And do we have immortal spirits that go to heaven when our bodies die?

 Voltaire, in Candide, demolished Leibniz’ sycophantic pretense that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” How could it be good for innocent children to die miserable deaths — in the great Portuguese earthquake of Voltaire’s day, or in shipwrecks, for example?

We are related to all life on Earth.   Many other life forms are conscious. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos, are genetically almost identical to us. So, do chimpanzees have an immortal spirit? Do dogs and cats? Ants and bacteria? This seems unlikely.

Evolution and survival seem focused on the species and the tribe, with individuals regularly exposed to random dangers, sometimes including sacrificing themselves for the good of their family or group. If life is not about us as individuals, it seems implausible that this changes with death.

I would say that God, Nature, or whatever “spirit” motivates the universe or multiverse, appears to be a “big picture” kind of entity. The world evolves, but individuals often suffer and always die. We should try to take satisfaction in the progress of life, the happiness and achievements of friends and family, and the beauty of the Earth.  


      Are we are part of something extraordinary?

Absolutely. The evolution of Earth to date is consistent with the possibility of a purposeful God, or with conscious Nature. If consciousness can emerge from “brute matter,” could there be a spiritual consciousness without matter? And do we participate in that?

We don’t know. That is a question of faith.



[i] Isaacson, Walter, “Einstein: His Life and Universe,”….


[iii] Hazen, Robert M. , “Origins of Life, Part 1 and Part 2,” audio lecture course and guidebook, The Great Courses (The Teaching Company Limited Partnership, 2005)

[iv] Isaacson, ibid

Wal-Mart, Amazon and the Swiss Social Wage


Carl Proper

January 20, 2014

“47 percent of U.S. jobs are ‘at risk’ of being automated in the next 20 years,” say Oxford University Professors Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, including most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labour in production occupations.[i]

“The opportunity is massive,” adds Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”[ii]  

One U.S. CEO, Amazon head Jeff Bezos, is doing his best to seize the “opportunity.”  Reaching outside his highly automated “fulfillment centers” – where the remaining human workforce complains of being treated like robots themselves[iii] – Bezos proposes to replace UPS delivery people  with a fleet of mini-drone helicopters to drop packages on your doorstep, largely untouched by human hands.

Why exploit workers, Bezos appears to believe, if you can just do without them?

There is a lot of evidence that this may indeed be our future.[iv]

Do organized labor or American workers believe this is the future?   Or are we too preoccupied with the threats of the present to develop a vision for a radically different economy?  And if we do envision the massive substitution of robots for human workers, for better or worse, do we have a strategy to cope with this world?

In the early 20th century, when the labor power we once took for granted was built, millions of workers were inspired by a vision of a vastly different, socialist future, where workers would not just live better, but would rule.   I believe that progressive thinkers and activists today should also sometimes lift our eyes from the daily struggle, so as to imagine and work toward a world where mere survival no longer compels us to sell our labor to the owners of capital.  Let the robots work for US.

Is this a crazy dream?  A number of Swiss citizens, enough of them to raise the question politically, don’t think so.  This winter, the Swiss will vote in a referendum whether the government should send every adult an equal monthly “paycheck” of about $2,800, whether they are employed or not.   They believe most people would continue to work, but work more freely, under this new regime.  It is an idea other Europeans, and some Americans are considering as well – mostly libertarians up to now, and most, unfortunately, involving a much lower “social wage.”

Maybe Amazon’s robot vision is the future.  And if so, as a working class, how long will we continue to seek work from employers who no longer need us, but still want our consumer dollars?  Why not, instead, prepare to let robots do the work, and demand a “social wage,” just for breathing?  Couldn’t we find better use for our time NOT laboring for The Man, but pursuing superior education for ourselves and our children, working for causes that matter to us, or selling mental or physical products from our own 2-D or 3-D printers — individually or cooperatively produced?

In today’s world of everyday struggle, American workers and organized labor are responding courageously to the brutal destruction of a formerly middle class living standard — fighting for a living minimum wage, sending demands for justice with one-day strikes, and pushing the political system to restore rights taken away at the workplace.  In these struggles, the message of organized labor and the Occupy movement continues and will grow.

Capitalism, however, evolves rapidly.  So must we.  Tomorrow’s struggles are likely to be very different from today’s, and in a growing number of places, tomorrow is already here.

But, before trying to build a highway to the future, let’s retrace the road that got us here.  What way is history moving?  And what are the realities beneath our ground?


Back in 1960, as Harold Meyerson writes, “America’s three largest employers were high-wage unionized manufacturers or utilities: General Motors, AT&T, and Ford.”[v]  They paid their production workers a living wage, also providing “Cadillac” health insurance and a defined benefit pension.

Families supported by these jobs had little need for the extensive government benefits provided today, except for Social Security as an addition to their union pensions.  By 1965, President Lyndon Johnson and many others even saw the potential for ending poverty in America, as we launched Medicare and Medicaid, Civil Rights reform and a variety of anti-poverty programs.

But by then, other global powers, whose economies had been crushed by World War II, had largely rebuilt, returned to  competition, and begun producing quality products while paying lower wages.  The world had changed radically beneath American Labor’s feet – and we reacted slowly and inadequately to the challenge.  New “Asian tigers” and Latin American sweatshop “opportunities” entered the global economy.  U.S. manufacturers were pushed back, and a “Rust Belt” grew.  Unable or unwilling to compete on quality or service, they turned to a neoliberal, global sweatshop strategy of their own.  As they broke unions, and sent the formerly best-paying jobs to low-wage regions or countries, a new economic model developed, based on contingent and low-wage employment, and on the spread of poverty, even for the employed, even here.   For the most part, we did not envision the new world that was coming.

U.S. retailers like Wal-Mart, increasingly selling goods made elsewhere, displaced manufacturers as the dominant employers. [vi]

Having come of age in the South during organized labor’s decline, Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton felt free from the start to pay his service employees the minimum wage, and sometimes less, even as he – at first –  promoted “made in USA” production.  Eventually, as Walton and his corporate descendants added innovative logistics to low-cost sales, Wal-Mart acquired unprecedented market power.  With their huge volume, they demoted manufacturers to lowly “supplier” status, and demanded they shift production to overseas where workers were paid virtually nothing by U.S. standards.  Their growing masses of U.S. warehouse and sales employees were eventually granted a substandard, though legal wage, and nominal, though substandard benefits.  As for the displaced U.S. manufacturing workers, we never developed an effective global response to that knockout punch.

But there was a weakness in the new Wal-Mart economy.   Without a living wage, U.S. workers as a whole were unable to purchase their own output. Government subsidies were required.  Even Republicans like President Nixon or economist Milton Friedman saw the need to supplement a living standard base on poverty wages and no (or inadequate) health insurance.  They displayed political caution in moving only gradually toward their long-term vision of a uniform global wage level, even in the U.S., but far below previous American standards.   Indeed, as Jaron Lanier points out in his recent book, “Who Owns the Future?,”[vii] over time Wal-Mart’s low-wage strategy cost competitors and suppliers hundreds of thousands of jobs, thus gradually impoverishing its own customer base.” [viii]   That is, to the extent dominant, pattern-setting employers, like Wal-Mart or McDonald’s, paid their employees less than the full value of their work, they depressed the whole economy and their own sales as well.   Sophisticated conservatives soon recognized the need to prop up the market for Wal-Mart and other retailers’ products, by expanding public income and benefit subsidies.  (Less savvy reactionaries, like the Tea Party, are radically opposed to the corporate conservatives’ strategy.)

To address capitalism’s need for income subsidies, and facilitate the shift to a neoliberal economy, President Nixon proposed a “negative income tax,” essentially a federal supplement for low wages, as well as a version of national health insurance to lift this burden from employers’ backs.  The insurance proposal was deemed not quite good enough by the AFL-CIO in that day, and so failed in Congress, but the tax supplement – an “Earned Income Tax Credit” (EITC) became law in 1975, and was significantly improved in the 1990’s.  Eventually, food stamps and other government supplements and protections were added.  National health insurance, with mixed support from labor and major employers, and opposition from a mostly Southern-based ideological right, is only now taking effect.

Wal-Mart was the new corporate model.  While avoiding the living wage that had been standard in an earlier generation, they directly and indirectly employed many humans – often on a part-time basis.  And, like fellow mass-market retailer McDonald’s, they encouraged their employees to take advantage of government benefits for the underpaid, or occasionally unemployed.

Confronting these low-wage, goods-supplying behemoths, Unions like SEIU and UFCW are now organizing (dues-free) workers who demand  a return to much higher minimum wages, and to employer-paid benefits adequate to cover their actual needs without federal wage and benefit support.

Right-wing economists, like Gregory Mankiw[ix] , the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President George W. Bush, while recognizing the need to put money in consumers’ pockets, generally prefer expanding the EITC, rather than raising the minimum wage.  This “negative income tax” distributes the cost of wage supplements to the whole population, whereas the cost of a higher minimum wage would fall directly on the offending employers.  While many conservatives, including defeated Presidential candidate Mitt Romney, grumble at the unfair “tax” on employers represented by either the EITC or the minimum wage, they mostly lobby to have the tax fall, like Shakespeare’s “gentle rain from heaven…on the just, and on the unjust”. 

Orrganized labor should not fail to recognize what even informed reactionaries implicitly acknowledge:  if the workforce is paid — whether by their employers or by the government — too much less than the actual value of their work, corporate profits will not be REALIZED in the marketplace, and the economy will suffer

But while labor struggles to return responsibility for workers’ full compensation back to their employers, a whole new front is opening up: a future for which we must prepare.

Amazon is the new model of online, speedy and low-priced retail.  Starting a business in the internet  / smart technology age, a world in which the demands of organized labor can often be ignored, CEO Bezos often faces charges of overworking his employees, and of warehouse conditions more congenial to robots than to humans requiring warmth, air and occasional rest — but he has a solution for that.

While sweaty masses of humans swarm throughout Wal-Mart stores, warehouses and the global production facilities they control, Amazon’s massive “fulfillment centers” (where orders, not people, are “fulfilled,” or shipped) are increasingly human-free – and heli-drones are on the way.  Bezos’ automation-based cost control appears fiscally superior to Wal-Mart’s.  His stated goal, which Wal-Mart has surely noted, is to become the world’s ONLY retailer – and perhaps the first retailer to employ only bean-counters and robot-installers / controllers / repair-folks – with no need for anyone to turn the lights on or off during the course of the twenty-four hour shipping day.

Other employers may not be far behind.

Google,over the last half-year… has quietly acquired seven technology companies in an effort to create a new generation of robots.  The engineer heading the effort is Andy Rubin, the man who built Google’s Android software into the world’s dominant force in smartphones.” [x]

Even as SEIU organizes McDonald’s service workers to demand a living wage, McDonald’s is installingMcD robot clerk 7,000 new touch-screen kiosks in its European stores.  In the foreseeable future, little human contact will be required to order burgers and fries.[xi]




McDonald’s shows off a touch-screen kiosk for ordering meals, installed in France in 2009.  (Credit: McDonald’s Europe)

In effect, Jeff Bezos and technology leaders like Google engineer Andy Rubin, foresee a future in which most of today’s retail / production workforce are “dead men (and women) walking.”

Our labor will not be needed, the Amazon/Google coterie believes:  there’s a robot for that.

While past technological revolutions led to new jobs, as they destroyed the old, there is no assurance this pattern will be repeated.  We can no more close our eyes to a future that is evident to technology gurus, than we can ignore the realities and predictions of global climate change, or the evidence of evolution.  Science and technology are changing, and will continue to radically change our world, and we must adapt or die.  We must shed any illusions that tomorrow’s economy will look like today’s.

The new Amazon economy presents a conundrum to organized Labor.  We have always depended for our power on leverage gained from capital needing our LABOR.  Perhaps, we may say, the recent growth of unemployment and long-term unemployment is only cyclical, and millions of new jobs will appear in a robot economy.  But perhaps we are witnessing, instead, the beginning of a very different world economic order, based on extreme automation of production, delivery and most repetitive services – and on corporate employment for only a minority of the adult population.

How then will the rest of us live?  And how will representatives of the newly unemployed or self-employed obtain leverage to make demands and negotiate terms of living, rather than just working?


The “Swiss solution” is one possible aspect strategy for an automated future.

Some economists, libertarians and conservatives – and perhaps the liberal Swiss and other Europeans – now believe we must simplify the subsidy of consumption, replacing multiple government programs, and the bureaucracies that administer them, with a single check, while allowing the replacement of workers with robots and other automated equipment.  Libertarians and conservatives, unsurprisingly, tend to favor a much lower social wage than the Swiss referendum will suggest.

As we know, conservatives love vouchers and hate government programs.  There will, as always, be a lot to argue about, social wage or no.  But they are looking in an interesting direction.

The Swiss referendum question combines the virtue of simplicity with an initially adequate social wage:  a flat monthly amount for all, enough to live on, but low enough to encourage most people to seek additional income from other sources.  It assumes that most people will continue to work, but perhaps not full time, and not necessarily for corporate employers — and to pay taxes.  Almost certainly, if such a step is to be considered in the U.S., we would expect it to phase in gradually, probably by shifting costs from existing programs — expanding the EITC, for example — and taxing the production of robots.  A generation of political conflict could be part of the package.

The question of how millions of displaced workers might use more free time also requires exploration.  Utopian writers have thought about this possibility for more than one hundred years.  But the rise of robotic technology and the decline of sustaining employment in advanced economies urgently raises the issue again in our time.   We should not wait for millions of jobs to disappear one industry at a time before developing a response that recognizes the inevitable (or probable) and leverages the possible.  How can we respond as a class, and globally – rather than be played off one more time, against each other?

If the Swiss should respond positively to the referendum, we will have an extraordinary learning opportunity, but the question is on our table regardless.

The opportunities and dangers are global and serious.  What is our plan?

[ii] ibid

[iii] As an Amazon employee in a recent strike in Germany  explains, “the workers are treated more as robots than human”  Alison Kilkenny, “Hundreds of German Workers at Amazon Walk Off the Job,” The Nation, December 16, 2013

[iv] See some suggested sources below.

[v] Harold Meyerson, “the Forty Year Slump”, American Prospect, Sep-Oct 2013

[vi] See Harold Meyerson, op cit,   “In 2013, America’s three largest private-sector employers are all low-wage retailers: Wal-Mart, Yum! Brands (which owns Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken) and McDonald’s.”

[vii] Jaron Lanier, Who Owns the Future?, Simon and Shuster, 2013

[viii] Cited in “Will Digital Networks Ruin Us?” Joe Nocera, NY Times, JAN. 6, 2014

[ix] N. Gregory Mankiw,  Help the Working Poor, But Share the Burden, New York Times, January 4, 2014

[x] “Google Puts Money on Robots, Using the Man Behind Android,” JOHN MARKOFF, New York Times,  December 4, 2013

[xi]’s hires 7,000 touch-screen cashiers

Other readings

BHL’s & UBI’s, By Jessica Flanigan, April 30, 2012;

Eight ways robots stole our jobs in 2013”,  By Lydia DePillis Wonkblog, Washington Post, December 23, 2013

“Giving All Americans a Basic Income Would End Poverty,” Danny Vinik,

“How to Cut the Poverty Rate in Half (It’s Easy)”. Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker, Atlantic Magazine, Oct 29 2013,

Hundreds of German Workers at Amazon Walk Off the Job,” The Nation, Allison Kilkenny on December 16, 2013

“Swiss to vote on 2,500 franc basic income for every adult”, Reuters, Berne, Oct 4, 2013

“Rethinking the Idea of a Basic Income for All”, Bruce Bartlett, NY Times Economix blog, December 10, 2013

“Welfare Benefits for Big Business”, CASEY B. MULLIGAN, NY Times Economix blog, December 25, 2013

“Why the future doesn’t need us,” Bill Joy, Wired, 1993

Rainforest Indigenous Fight Ranchers, Loggers Over “Best Use” of Land

Panama:  Rainforest Indigenous Fight Ranchers, Loggers Over

“Best Use” of Land


July 17, 2013 At 4:00 a.m., indigenous dwellers in the Darién rainforest, Republic of Panama, barricaded the Inter-American Highway near the community of Arimae, about 100 miles east of Panama City.  Truckers and other travelers were unhappy.  Indigenous leaders demanded a meeting with a government Minister and enforcement of the policy against non-indigenous squatters occupying their land.  The next day, the Minister appeared.  Native control of the land was acknowledged, and the immediate crisis was resolved, but permanent legal recognition and indigenous communal ownership of the land is still pending.

Highway blockade - barrierPublic is inconveniencedBlockading the Highway.  No pasarán.

                                                        The public is inconvenienced

Wounaan Chief

Wounaan Chief

Wounaan indigenous leader, Osorio speaks to former Peace CorpsVolunteers visiting Darien province,June, 2013

According to Planting Empowerment, a business supporting sustainable forestry in the Darién, “from 1969 to 1981, the community lost 64,000 hectares of its reserve to loggers, migrant subsistence farmers from other provinces, and the Inter-American Highway expansion.  Today, Arimae communally manages just over 8,000 hectares of land.[i]

What century are we in?  What have we learned?  And has it made a difference?

As a study of descendants of Panama’s pre-Colombian population puts it:  “Indigenous peoples throughout the world have been losing their lands to outsiders and newcomers for many generations. It is a trend that continues to this day.”[ii]

But why should we care?  What basis could there be for solidarity between trade unionists in modern society and traditional peoples confronting  powerful agricultural interests in the jungles of Central America?

A shared commitment to communal, rather than merely individual rights, might be one point in common.  The desperate need for all progressive forces to stand together against predatory capital could be another.  A common interest in preserving a livable climate might be a third.

What first struck me, as I heard an indigenous leader speaking to a group of ex-Peace Corps Volunteers in Panama a few months ago, was the similarity in strategy and tactics between the sometime victims of capitalism in our two countries.  The combination of self-organization, alliance-building and legal, political and direct action that once worked for us – and which we must now re-invent – is also showing results in the forests of Panama.  Though our situations vary, history has shown that large numbers of people united behind a cause can defeat large amounts of money – but it takes purpose, solidarity and courage.

U.S. unionists should also consider some more specific common interests and responsibilities.  Panama could be a natural meeting point for global union-building north and south of the U.S. border.  The country was born when warships sent by U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt “liberated” the Isthmus from the nation of Colombia to facilitate construction of the Panama Canal.  As Teddy put it, “I took Panama.”  If every U.S. hotel chain, two separate Trump towers, and regional offices for U.S. business of every kind now rule the Panama City skyline – what holds poor and working people in our two countries back from common endeavor?  After centuries of capitalists allying to extract land and wealth from the people of Panama and the world, is it not time now for us to support the struggle for communal space, common wealth and ecological sanity for our planet — and to build bridges to the progressive allies we badly need ourselves?

So who are the indigenous in Panama, and how do their lives touch us today?

For hundreds of years, the Wounaan and Emberá people, and members of other tribes, lived in the “undeveloped” jungles of the eastern[iii] Darién region and the eastern Chimán (Pacific) coast district by fishing, hunting with bows and arrows, and gathering.  They wore few clothes, spoke indigenous languages, and were largely undisturbed by modern society.  The Inter-American Highway, which otherwise stretches unbroken from Alaska to Patagonia, ended at the beginning of Darién province, not starting again until beyond the Colombian border.

But, beginning in the 1970’s, well-off cattle ranchers and subsistence farmers from Panama’s developed interior, after years of land disputes with each other, began pushing to open up the jungle.  The activist Omar Torrijos administration began extension of the Inter-American Highway into the Darién, while also establishing a number of reservations (“Comarcas”) for native residents.  As in the United States, however, indigenous who did not happen to live in the areas set aside for them, did not wish to move from their native land.  In eastern Darién province, where the Highway is still being built; and in the eastern Pacific coast area, separated from the Highway and the rest of Panama by a mountain range on one side and miles of mangrove swamps on the other, conflicts began between natives and “colono” (colonist) squatters.

The colonos themselves are divided between agribusiness loggers (some from Korea and other countries), large-scale cattle ranchers connected to Panama’s leading families, and subsistence farmers pushed out of depleted land in the western interior, who may combine farming and cattle-raising as they are able.  The loggers are primarily interested in the valuable native rosewood trees scattered throughout the forests.

Over time, the indigenous themselves have adapted increasingly to some aspects of the modern world as well, sending some children to Panama schools, and earning income from the sale of palm-frond baskets, rosewood carvings and other crafts to Panamanians and visitors from around the world.

But the indigenous and the interlopers deal very differently with the land.

The colonos generally engage in clear-cut farming, logging or ranching – clearing whole swathes of rainforest in order to pluck out one valuable rosewood tree from among many and various species; or turning forests to pastures that support one cow per hectare.  (The typical local measure equals about 2 ½ acres.)

By contrast, the native forest dwellers, as one study has shown[iv], now “engage in a [much more] diverse mix of geographically intensive income-generating strategies, such as Fishing, Clamming, and Artisanship. Wounaan artisans rely on dozens of forest resources in their rosewood, tagua nut (“vegetable ivory”), and vegetable-dyed woven baskets, but their income comes from the high value they add to these resources through their skilled labor, not from the extensive input of land into their ‘production function.’[v]

To the extent they engage in clear-cut farming, “the Wounaan [eventually] allow the land used for agriculture to re-grow to secondary forest, [while] the Colonos convert their crop fields to cattle-pastures.  As a result, the Wounaan’s subsistence land use also results in less long-term deforestation than the Colonos’ subsistence land use.  [vi]

Unsurprisingly, the indigenous forest-dwellers differ from the colonists in that they act to preserve their forest homes.[vi]

More surprisingly, combining their hunter-gatherer skills, and their skill-intensive craft production, “the average Wounaan household earns annually US$ 5,365 from the sale of goods which compares to a value of US$ 2,545 for the Colonos.”

The argument for “best (economic) use” of the forest land may favor indigenous development.

Legal, Political and Physical Struggle

But the forty-year struggle for control of the rainforest land has been hard, and it continues.

Throughout the 1990’s and up to the present day, indigenous communities have made a series of requests to national government Ministries for protection of their land from what they perceive to be illegal colonization. In the mid-1990’s, seventeen Emberá / Wounaan communities formed a unified “Congreso,” and petitioned the National Assembly to pass legislation under which indigenous communities outside of the comarcas could establish legal title their land.

At times, the government has responded to indigenous petitions with promises, and at other times with simple neglect.

And neglect has sometimes led to violence.

On November 12, 2000, armed colonos appeared in the indigenous community of Río Hondo to menace the Wounaan with a show of force.  One year later, Wounaan indigenous in the Chiman district took matters into their own hands and burned the houses and storage sheds that had been built by colonos on Wounaan lands.  After a short respite, the colonos returned, and the government did not take action.

In 2004, the Wounaan brought several reporters into the Chiman community of Río Hondo to do a story on incursions into their lands. When the reporters and community members hiked up to the colonos’ settlements, they were attacked. “This led to a massive and bloody confrontation between the Wounaan and the colonos, with some two dozen participants injured.”[vii]

In 2012, a struggle in Chimán left one logger and the chief of the indigenous community of Platanares dead.  (See the trailer to a video in process on this tragedy at

Along the way, however, there has been progress, much of it in response to actions of the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In 2001, the Court of Human Rights found that the Nicaraguan government had violated international agreements by depriving the indigenous Nicaraguan community of Awas Tingni of rights to communal property and judicial protections.  Nicaragua was ordered to provide a mechanism for the indigenous to title their lands.  The precedent is relevant to the Panama situation.

In October of 2008, Panama was forced to defend itself as the Wounaan joined with other indigenous peoples to testify at a hearing before the Commission on Human Rights in Washington D.C.  A few weeks later, the Panamanian Assembly approved “Law 72,” finally creating a legal process for titling communal land.

And in 2013, the first two indigenous communities in the Pacific coast area – Puerto Lara and Caño Blanco – received communal land titles. 

Consistent with past practice, however, twelve other indigenous communities in the Darién / Pacific coast area remain without title to their land, about 50,000 hectares of rainforest.  And on at least three occasions, in 2011 and 2013, indigenous Wounaan and Emberá in Arimae have resorted to blockading the Inter-American Highway, to get the government’s attention once again.

Two groups founded by former Peace Corps Panama volunteers – Planting Empowerment ( and Native Future ( are working today in their former communities with Panama indigenous.

Planting Empowerment is organized as a business, with funding from Kiva and other small lenders.  They own a small amount of land in the Darién, near the Arimae community, where they train both indigenous and colono small-holders in sustainable tropical forestry – selective, rather than clear-cutting, mixing native and existing “invasive” species in preference to monoculture, harvesting and replanting on a schedule that retains the forest, selling 25-year leases to keep small-holders from literally “cutting and running” to another forest site – and in marketing of their products.

Native Future’s provides education and legal training, finances legal cases, and supports community organizing aimed at gaining definite land tenure for the indigenous.

Both groups also coordinate with the Rainforest Foundation ( in their efforts to protect rainforests and their indigenous residents, and to promote ecological best practice.

European intervention in the Americas began in mistrust and conflict with native peoples, often including slaughter or enslavement, and moving on to the seizure of the continents’ land and resources, with reservations, raids and roundups for the indigenous.  Today, there is growing recognition that Euro-Americans have much to learn from the sustainable lifestyle they supplanted.  Organized and unorganized labor has no less to learn and contribute to a sustainable future than do our corporate adversaries.

In the “battle of Seattle,” in the year 2000, labor reached what now looks like a high point in our power to resist the global destruction of our rights, as labor and environmentalists (“Teamsters and turtles”) fought together for democratic participation in international trade agreements.  For a brief period of time, President Clinton was impressed, appearing to believe he would need our willing cooperation to achieve his own global ambitions.  We let that opportunity, and that cooperation, slip away.

In Panama, and in other parts of the Americas, indigenous people are now fighting in the way we have fought, to protect their rights – and also to protect natural resources we all rely on.

Which side are we on?

[i] Planting Empowerment, “75% of their forest is gone. Time for some new approaches.”

[ii] “Forest Dwellers with No Forest: the Economic and Ecological Consequences of Panama’s Land Tenure System for the Wounaan People,” Martin Philipp Heger, Zachary McNish (unpublished, c. 2010)

[iii] A traveler from North to South America through the S –shaped Republic of Panama actually moves mostly from west to east.

[iv] Heger and McNish, op cit

[v] ibid

[vi] Ibid

[vii] Ibid